Tom O'Brien in FAIRHAVEN (Starz Digital Media)

Tom O’Brien in FAIRHAVEN

Written & Directed by Tom O’Brien, based on a story by O’Brien & Chris Messina
Produced by Massoumeh Emami
USA. 81 min. Not rated
With Chris Messina, Rich Sommer, Tom O’Brien, Sarah Paulson, Alexie Gilmore, Natalie Gold, Alicia Racine, Maryann Plunkett & Phyllis Kay

Long gone are the days when Fairhaven, Massachusetts inspired epic tales of adventure on the high seas. Just across the bay lies New Bedford, the historic fishing mecca from which Captain Ahab set sail and generations of real-life fishing families pioneered a legendary American industry. These days Fairhaven is a shell of its former self, with scant lobster boats chugging in and out of its harbor, and its glory faded into the hum of everyday life.

Herein is the stage for writer/director/actor Tom O’Brien’s equally everyday (by design) film that mirrors its namesake in most ways, including scope, significance, and action. It’s not a large town, and, likewise, it’s not a large film, but a relationship drama of modest stature, and frankly, not a lot happens in it. Just as Fairhaven the city retains an air of dignity and quiet pride, so does this plain, but respectable, piece of filmmaking.

O’Brien is Jon, a high school football quarterback now in his 30s living back home with his mom and fretting about what more life can offer. His buddy Sam (Rich Sommer) and Sam’s ex-wife Kate (Sara Paulson) also still inhabit the seaside hamlet, and they receive his angsty complaints of malaise with a typical “what can you do” attitude. A third mate, Dave (Chris Messina), arrives back in town to attend his estranged father’s funeral after years of a long absence living out West. Jon becomes especially roiled when the trio goes out drinking and begins reminiscing—even Sam, the proto-homebody, is stirred into the juvenile adventuresome fun. Skeletons from the closet start to stumble out, particularly concerning Kate and Dave, and the group is forced to reexamine themselves.

The naturalism in the performances attests to the fact that many of these actors have worked together before in similar indie dramas. At the same time, O’Brien’s almost laissez-faire directing allows for the scenes to often go in surprising directions, banking on skillful improvisation by the cast and a huge amount of flexibility in the script. It’s a film of varying moods—happy at times but mostly melancholy.

Nothing’s going to wow you here, but nothing’s going to really fall flat for anyone. Alexie Gilmore also puts in good work as Jon’s on-again, off-again lover—an assertive, independent woman in a town that would have expected her married and pregnant with her second child by 27. It feels inappropriate even trying to tell you what the film is about, considering its utter unremarkability (again, by design), but be prepared for some solid contemplation and 30-something small-town existentialism.

A gold star goes to Messina, who is not only talented, but obviously commits a great deal to every one of his many characters (he is in SO much film and TV right now). He cannot play an uninteresting man if he tried. O’Brien casts and directs him well, allowing a breath of life from outside Fairhaven to filter its way in. And though the townies breathe plenty of fresh sea air, perhaps that is precisely the tonic they all really need.