Despite Fairhaven‘s rather hand-me-down plot (Chris Messina’s erstwhile Dave returns to the eponymous coastal Massachusetts town he fled a decade earlier for his father’s funeral and reunites with old buddies), co-screenwriter, director, and star Tom O’Brien resists the emotional bombast of films such as The Big Chill. Rife with chilly New England locales, Tom Brady references, fishing boats, and Narragansett lager, Fairhaven plays coy with its quintessential indie-dramedy setup, eschewing narrative and tension in favor of convivial character interplay and master shots of wintry landscapes.
Unfolding at a chatty yet languid pace more suitable for a one-act play than a feature-film character study, Fairhaven is primarily focused on three friends: Jon (O’Brien), an alpha-male fisherman-cum-wannabe-writer; Dave (Messina, also serving as co-screenwriter), an impulsive, self-destructive hedonist; and Sam (Rich Sommer), an unassuming, divorced father working in real estate. Also present is Sam’s remarried ex-wife, Kate (Sarah Paulson, given little but asked to do a lot), who also—as Dave reveals to Jon, in the only moment in the flimsy film that resonates as significant information—was intimately involved with Dave at one point.
Despite a very brief 81 minutes, most of Fairhaven is devoted to reviving the social beats of the trio’s friendship: getting high, taking shots of whiskey at the local watering hole, and exchanging stories of carnal exploits. O’Brien undermines the development of his characters, though, leaving them to wallow in bro-tastic, if sensitivity-tinged, conversations. The film is affably modest but dramatically undercooked; when O’Brien follows only one particular character, it feels more like he’s pulling focus from the storyline rather than adding layers to the whole, resulting in less of an ensemble piece and more of an incongruous collection of stunted portraits of small-town thirtysomethings.
Homecoming films often have the convenience of built-in themes of nostalgia and redemption, and Fairhaven takes such ideas for granted. The cast imbues their characters with a lived-in quality, but O’Brien is more committed to capturing atmosphere by often obscuring everyone’s faces in shadowy cinematography; the film’s stilted rhythms keep it from achieving a palpable milieu necessary to be an acute mood piece. Brewing emotions and anxieties are hinted at, but never resonate, so when Jon finally confronts Dave (after Jon’s therapy session where the audience is given full access to Jon’s inner self via a miscalculated attempt at character insight), their conflict registers as flat and inconsequential. The final brief climax between two characters is quickly brushed aside, and followed by a truncated coda that fades out to the folksy tune of These United States’s “Damned and Redeemed.” It’s an abrupt and unwarranted happy ending, leaving one with the feeling that any tensions can be easily whisked away by the plucking of guitar strings.