SOMERVILLE, Mass. — I went expecting nothing– and came away feeling like I’d really been somewhere: “Fairhaven”– an absorbingly authentic chamber piece about a restless man fishing for a meaningful life. Set in a working class town on the southern coast of Massachusetts, the film is a maiden voyage for its filmmaker Medford-born Tom O’Brien who cowrote, directed, and also stars as Jon, an ex-high school football player. He bears more than a passing resemblance to Tom Brady and is in fact, haunted by something Brady once said in an interview — that despite all of his achievements, he hopes there’s “something more than this.”
So does Jon. An aspiring writer, he has outgrown his first adult job on a fishing boat, and finds himself stranded in deep water. He’s not the only one. His old friend Dave, subtly played by Chris Messina– who helped write the script–has returned home for his estranged father’s funeral. Together, they roam the town as if circling a drain, passing the beaches and the bars, smoking dope and picking up “broads,” trying to find their way.
They re-connect with Sam (Rich Sommer/”Mad Men”) now a divorced dad who remains stuck after his marriage hit the rocks, unable to find a new relationship though his wife (Sarah Paulson) has moved on and remarried. The three are more entangled than we at first glean. Adrift with middle age on the horizon, they ride the tide of shifting revelations and disillusionment, recalibrating the history of their friendship,
The film, playing at the Somerville theatre, hooked me immediately. The performances are so intimate and honest, I felt like a voyeur. It’s no accident: these characters are familiar to the filmmaker and the seeker he plays, and to us. As Jon sits in therapy -–his less introspective pals honking the horn outside–- I was struck by the truth of the encounter, the therapist’s unadorned affect and probing but nonjudgmental interaction. It turns out the therapist is the filmmaker’s mother, Donna O’Brien, a real-life psychotherapist in her hometown of Fairhaven.
Much of the cast reads like a who’s who of local Boston actors: a crusty Paul O’Brien as Jon’s captain, the beautiful Georgia Lyman, and Maryann Plunkett as Jon’s earthy mother. The pace is slow, but as O’Brien lets the camera linger on the actors’ faces, we’re pulled into the rhythm of their roiling inner lives. Messina and Paulson in particular have never been more unaffectedly transparent.
One could argue that nothing much, or new, happens here, that the dramatic arc is a little flat. What “Fairhaven” does offer is a slice of real life tenderly observed, set against the raw beauty of a seacoast town where a fresh new filmmaker — with a feel for his roots and the universal — holds the existential musings of Tom Brady and the mere mortals he inspires — in equal sway.
Joyce Kulhawik is the president of the Boston Theater Critics Association and a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can find her online at joyceschoices.com for the latest Movie, Theater, and Entertainment reviews, plus free advance screenings.