Tom O’Brien’s writing and directing debut, Fairhaven, is set in the eponymous New England fishing village, which O’Brien showcases at its wintry best. The sun dapples through the bare trees, playing across the fresh snow and reflecting into the warm interiors of a quaint small town. To some, Fairhaven would be a paradise. To the ex-jock and aspiring writer played by O’Brien, and to his divorced buddy Rich Sommer, Fairhaven is a dull void, slowly draining their lives away. They envy their old friend Chris Messina, who left town a decade ago and occasionally sends dispatches about his libertine adventures out west. Then Messina’s dad dies, and he returns to Fairhaven, alarming O’Brien and Sommer with how sad and self-destructive he’s become.
O’Brien co-wrote Fairhaven with Messina, and the two of them have an easy chemistry with each other (and with Sommer), as they toss around cutting insults by way of bleeding out some truth. Fairhaven’s naturalistic feel is its best quality. Unlike a lot of low-budget indie films, Fairhaven isn’t overwritten; there’s an appealing, lived-in casualness to the way the characters interact. They seem to exist in the real world, too—one where divorce has complicated common rites of passage, such as raising kids, or attending a parent’s funeral.
But “not overwritten” can easily shade into “underwritten,” which is the case with Fairhaven. At the start of the film, O’Brien has a loose, low-key conversation with Sommer about an interview with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, in which Brady described his dissatisfied feeling after having his wildest dreams come true. By the third time O’Brien tells this anecdote in Fairhaven, it’s clear that the movie doesn’t have much more on its mind beyond the vague dissatisfactions of young(ish) men. O’Brien’s character dates a New Age “laugh therapist” and has his own shrink, whom he tells things like, “I don’t even know what that means, being ‘me.’” After a promising first half hour, the movie devolves into a string of scenes where people shout at each other about their feelings, rather than revealing themselves through behavior, or through what they aren’t saying. Fairhaven’s location is lovely. Its actors are terrific. All of them beg for something better.