One can appreciate the formal control writer-director Tom O’Brien maintains over his material in “Fairhaven,” and even admire the persuasive performances he and his fellow players give in key roles, without viewing his debut feature as anything more substantial than a series of acting-class sketches. O’Brien never allows anything, not even an angrily self-critical outburst during a therapy session, to get out of hand. But while there’s something undeniably fascinating about the way “Fairhaven” repeatedly avoids predictable payoffs for portentous dramatic setups, narrative momentum is conspicuous by its absence. The low-key indie seems best suited for home-screen platforms.
Filmed largely on location in and around the eponymous Massachusetts coastal town, “Fairhaven” treads lightly over familiar territory. Jon (O’Brien), a thirtysomething former high-school quarterback who’s borderline-obsessive about NFL great Tom Brady, feels it’s high time he quit his fishing-boat job and concentrated full-time on writing. Trouble is, judging from the self-penned doggerel he whispers to his New Age-y girlfriend (Alexie Gilmore) during an intimate moment, this does not appear to be the most practical of career moves.
But never mind: Jon’s literary ambitions are mostly forgotten once Dave (Chris Messina), his prodigal buddy, returns to town after a long absence to attend his estranged father’s funeral. Dave is the sort of bad boy who can sweet-talk a stripper into an after-hours, cocaine-fueled close encounter at her place. But his powers of persuasion have their limits: Dave’s unable to convince the moody and vaguely discontented Jon to join him and the stripper in a threesome.
Later, Dave casually admits to having had sexual congress a decade or so earlier with Kate (Sarah Paulson), the ex-wife of Sam (Rich Sommer), a mutual friend who so far has remained clueless about the long-ago escapade. That this brief affair occurred while Sam and Kate were separated doesn’t matter much to Jon, who views Dave’s indiscretion as a betrayal of Sam. Still, Jon is willing to join his two friends for an evening of pub-crawling that climaxes, so to speak, when Sam inadvertently reveals a not-so-dark secret that nevertheless is a surprise.
There is a quietly impressive naturalism to the acting and dialogue in several individual scenes — especially two with Paulson and Messina as their characters awkwardly acknowledge their past, and the above-referenced therapy session, during which O’Brien reveals the intensity of Jon’s frustrations. Sharp lensing by Peter Simonite and a subdued score by the progressive rock group Blow Up Hollywood serve to enhance the overall mood of melancholy.
In the end, however, “Fairhaven” comes off as less a satisfying piece of work than a promising indication of better things to come from several individuals involved.