Writer/actor/director Tom O’Brien isn’t from Massachusetts, and that much is clear right away. With his perfect diction and skin unweathered by salty sea spray, it’s a little hard—as a girl who grew up on the coast of Maine—to take him seriously as the protagonist of FAIRHAVEN, a buddy dramedy set south of Boston that premieres this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. While the seeds of a really compelling story are visible below the surface, and several performances (though not all of them) are noteworthy, FAIRHAVEN is a film that isn’t clear enough about what it wants to be—like its protagonist, it’s muddled, unpredictable, and difficult to get attached to.
The story follows O’Brien as John, an aimless bachelor still living in his hometown and working on a fishing trawler to make ends meet. However, we learn early on that John has Ambition for Greater Things; namely, becoming a writer. His mother (Maryann Plunkett) sarcastically refers to him as “John Hemingway” in an early scene, and since we never actually see John engaged in the craft of writing or learn anything about his work—aside from a mumbled, drunken poem—it’s hard not to side with her.
The film’s focus, however, isn’t on John and his work, whatever it may be; it’s on his relationships with his two best friends from high school, Sam (Rich Sommer) and Dave (Chris Messina). Still living in Fairhaven and divorced by his unrealistically pretty wife, Kate (Sarah Paulson), who has already remarried a much older guy, Sam is overwhelmed by his job and his young daughter. Dave, on the other hand, got out of Dodge as soon as he could, and only comes back to Fairhaven from Arizona for his estranged father’s funeral. When the three reunite, we learn about new possibilities and past betrayals, and there’s potential for some poignant insight into the nature of modern male relationships. Sadly, these emotional climaxes never really come together, with Messina instead getting both emotional highs in the film—scenes in which he confronts his bereaved mother and Sam’s ex Kate, respectively.
John’s conflicts in life revolve around his own malaise toward just about everything; he’s dating a new-agey girl (Alexie Gillmore) who espouses a belief in “open relationships,” but he isn’t sure how deeply he cares about her. He goes to therapy every week, but doesn’t seem to have much to talk about with his therapist.. Dave, on the other hand, has a lot that he should be talking to a therapist about—paternal abandonment, perpetual bachelorhood, bereavement—but of course he doesn’t want to. Messina’s performance is much more natural and less pretentious than O’Brien’s, and Messina is simply more believable as the prodigal son, made desperately uncomfortable by the familiarity of his hometown surroundings. Sommer also turns in an excellent performance as the sweet but damaged Sam, though he doesn’t get a lot of screen time.
The film’s most interesting moments come when John, Dave and Sam are on the verge of breaking into one giant fight and finally letting all their anger and jealousy towards one another out into the open. This never quite comes to pass; instead, we’re made to focus on the aimless and slightly annoying John, while the much more compelling and better-acted stories of Dave and Sam are relegated to the narrative sidelines. FAIRHAVEN would be much more interesting and satisfying if it focused on either Sam or Dave; as it is, it feels too much like a vanity project to be alluring, and its storyline isn’t satisfying enough, in the end, to live up to its exposition. The accents could also use a little work.