There is a thin, dangerous line between presenting listlessness onscreen and creating it, and that's a line that writer/director/actor Tom O'Brien mostly stays on the right side of in his new film Fairhaven. It's a story of three old friends from a small town, the kind of place where you spend a lot of time in bars, or working menial jobs, or sleeping with the wrong people. Dave (Chris Messina) moved away; Sam (Rich Sommer) and Jon (O'Brien) did not. Now Dave is back, for the first time in years, for the funeral of a father with whom he was not close. "I wasn't gonna come at all," he shrugs, and for much of the film, it seems that might've been the best idea for all concerned parties.
The early scenes are a little clunky, with catching-up conversations failing to convey the exposition in a smooth enough manner; O'Brien's script lays out names and relationships that are still unclear to the viewer. It eventually comes into focus: Sam was married to Kate (Sarah Paulson), with whom Dave has a bit of history, but they divorced, and she remarried. Jon has met a woman named Angela (Alexie Gilmore) and he likes her, though he's not sure what to make of her preference for "open relationships." Dave seems to have alienated just about everyone who's close to him; he plans to spend his time in Fairhaven in varying states of altered perception. The film spins these guys towards each other, and watches them bang around a while.
As a filmmaker, O'Brien achieves a specific feel and tone that's difficult to describe, but is a good fit for the material. His strength lies in subtext, in scenes that aren't about what they appear to be about, like the awkwardness between Sam and Kate at her front door, as he drops off their daughter and exchanges feeble pleasantries with her second husband, or the body language between Kate and Dave when they see each other for the first time in years, the way that all of that tension, all of that messy leftover stuff can lead to an exchange of looks that prompts a stern "Don't do that."
There are themes coursing through O'Brien's script (Messina shares a story credit) that are worth examining: the real feeling of being in your 30s and not knowing who the hell you are, or the dynamic that can develop between those that leave and those they leave behind. The trouble is that, the more explicit he gets, the less effective his film becomes, so the big arguments and hashing outs of the third act aren't just rote, they're borderline destructive.
And there's one other difficulty: our main character is not the most interesting one. No knocks intended on O'Brien as an actor--he's a sturdy, anchoring presence. But the scene at his shrink's is a dud, and his encounters with Angela are scarcely more interesting; he's written himself the dry, conventional "leading man" role, leaving Sommer and Messina the juicy character roles that the picture could use more of. Messina's character is particularly interesting, and somewhat underserved by the script--this is a bitter, jaded, vulgar dude, and if you're going to try and explain away his flaws (by no means a requirement), the explanation could use a little bit more teeth. And then there's the problem of the maddeningly inconclusive ending, which genuinely feels as though they ran out of money or time and decided they could just end it, um, here.
Still, what Fairhaven does in those early scenes, it does well, and the performances are top-tier--particularly Messina and Paulson, who has to play her important scenes on at least a couple of divergent levels, and does so adroitly. As a performance piece alone, it's worth a look.