Review: TFF 2012: Male Friendship Washed Down with Narragansett Beer: Fairhaven

This review originally appeared on Capital New York.

Jon (Tom O’Brien) is a thirty-something guy who lives in the fishing town of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. He was a football star in high school. He works on a fishing boat, and has dreams of becoming a writer. He’s dating Angela (Alexie Gilmore), a sweet woman who meditates, does yoga, holds acting workshops in a gymnasium, and talks about how it would be okay to have an “open relationship,” as long as they both are honest. Jon, a nice guy, isn’t sure how he feels about that.

Even more importantly, he recently saw an interview with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, where Brady – Tom Brady – said, “There’s got to be something more than this.”

This one comment sends Jon into a tailspin. Even Tom Brady has doubts, and yearns for something more. Jon can’t stop talking about the interview. He tells all his friends. Nobody else is impressed. Tom hauls fish, hangs out with his girlfriend, visits his mother, goes to therapy, and he, too, wonders if there is “something more than this”.

Fairhaven, directed and written by its star Tom O’Brien, is a poignant personal film about three high-school friends who reunite in their hometown over the course of one wintry weekend. Jon and Sam (Mad Men‘s Rich Sommer) still live in Fairhaven, while Dave (Chris Messina) has forged out into the larger world, and manages a strip club in Vegas.

Dave’s father has died, and he is home for the funeral. The men are in their thirties now, struggling to make sense of their adulthood. Their youthful dreams haven’t panned out.

Sam was married to Kate (the wonderful Sarah Paulson), but they have split. The couple have a 10-year-old daughter and Sam, a real estate agent, is harried and anxious about being a good single dad, and making his schedule work. Dave has returned from Vegas, and is estranged from his family, but his father’s death brings up a lot of stuff in him. Over the course of a couple of days, the friends drink, talk, get high, get laid, and say things to one another that cannot be unsaid. We’ve seen it all before, right?

But in Tom O’Brien’s deft hands, Fairhaven takes the familiar story and makes it into something lovely, insightful and emotional. These three friends have a lot of history. You can’t hide from friends like this.

Fairhaven is a fishing town sharing a harbor with the famed whaling port of New Bedford, and Fairhaven starts with gorgeous shots of the fishing harbor at sunrise, with wheeling seagulls and quiet bobbing fishing boats, stark against the spectacular sky. Fairhaven‘s cinematographer is the talented Peter Simonite, who captures the bleak grandeur of a fishing town in winter, making it look both beautiful and like a dead end. Having grown up in a town like Fairhaven myself, the details are perfect: bars that are so cold inside no one takes off their parkas, the Narragansett Beer signs outside of local pubs, dialogue like, “Ma, I’ve missed your quahogs.”

Fairhaven is honest, and doesn’t try to do too much. This isn’t a story about the characters becoming men, because they’re already men. It’s about them becoming the kinds of men they want to be, and making peace with the fact that they’re no longer young, that it’s time to get serious, it’s time to work on their issues and move past the things holding them back.

Tom O’Brien comes from a New York theatre background, having appeared on Broadway in Lincoln Center’s Observe the Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and working off-Broadway with such companies as Ensemble Studio Theater, Naked Angels, The Zipper Theater, Access Theater and New York Performance Works. He has written and produced plays, and Fairhaven is his first feature.

He himself is a beautifully available actor, thoughtful and anxious. In O’Brien’s hands, Jon is something that isn’t seen all that often in today’s cinema: a real, recognizable normal guy. It’s a sweet and human performance.

Chris Messina has received a lot of praise as an actor for his turn on Damages, and, along with his appearances on the New York stage, continues to work a lot in feature films. He’s great as Dave, more corrupt than the other two. Dave rarely comes home, having run away from Fairhaven as quickly as he could. Messina shows the deep wells of hurt in this man: he was once in love with Sam’s wife Kate. This thwarted relationship was one of the defining moments in his life.

And Rich Sommer is terrific as Sam, racing around from showing houses to picking up his daughter, to having awkward conversations on the stoop of his ex-wife’s house. He feels like a failure but he doesn’t have much time to dwell on it. He’s too busy surviving. Going out and getting drunk with his high school friends is the only free time he’s had in months.

He picks up a girl in a bar. In another movie, this encounter would be all about the sex, with his friends hooting from the other room. But in Fairhaven, what starts as a hot makeout scene ends in embarrassment, with Sam saying to her, awkwardly, beautifully, “Perhaps … sometime next week … I could pick you up and we could go … to a movie house …” She, who obviously really likes him, laughs sweetly. “Movie house?”

In contemporary cinema, where male bonding is represented mainly by picking up hookers in Thailand, it’s refreshing to see the friendship treated with respect, honesty and humor.

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