April 22, 2016 at 2:45 pm EDT | by Brian T. Carney
‘Fair Haven’ subtle, effective
Actor Tom Wopat in 'Fair Haven.' (Photo courtesy Reel Affirmations)

Actor Tom Wopat in ‘Fair Haven.’ (Photo courtesy Reel Affirmations)

“Fair Haven” is a thoroughly engaging movie that tackles a difficult topic (the devastating impact of “reparative” therapy) with a surprisingly light hand and admirable subtlety.

The film tells the story of James Grant (Michael Grant), a promising young pianist who has been sent to reparative therapy by his concerned conservative parents. He returns home to work in the family apple orchard run by his gruff father Richard (Tom Wopat) and starts dating Suzy Thomas (Lily Anne Harrison), the preacher’s daughter. An unexpected and unwelcome encounter with his ex-boyfriend Charlie (Josh Green) forces him to reassess his dreams and desires. (Washington Blade interviews Wopat here.)

Director Kerstin Karlhuber handles her first feature-length narrative film with considerable assurance. Her sense of timing is confident and firm. The deeply emotional story is given room to breathe and unfold at its own pace. Several wordless sequences are beautiful duets between the director and her actors, allowing the characters (and the audience) to sort out their conflicted feelings.

Her visual style is also compelling. Working with cinematographer Jason Beasley, Karlhuber captures both the lush beauty of the Vermont countryside and the cramped confines of small town rural life. The recurring overhead shots of James in his childhood bedroom, for example, help to define the character and give the film momentum.

The script by Jack Bryant is generally strong. Bryant and Karlhuber wisely show James’ conversion therapy sessions in a series of flashbacks. This shows how the lingering effects of the deep psychic trauma inflicted on the young man continue to haunt him while allowing the present-day story to move along more quickly. The dialogue is natural and unforced and captures the rhythms of New England speech well.

Unfortunately, the resolution, while ultimately believable, comes a little quickly. While the scenes of Richard wandering the orchard by himself and James sitting alone in a pasture are lovely, more dialogue would make the final scenes flow more smoothly. Likewise, the backstory is not entirely clear. James’ relationship with his late mother is not well-defined and the sequence of events before and after his involuntary commitment is confusing. Likewise, the original music by Christopher Farrell often doesn’t seem to match the mood of the scenes or the personality of the characters.

Despite these challenges, Karlhuber gets strong performances from her lead actors. Tom Wopat’s stern performance may be a revelation to fans who remember him as Luke Duke or know him as a suave singer. Wopat sympathetically captures a laconic New England farmer unsure of how to handle rapidly changing circumstances. He also sings on the soundtrack during the final credits. In a similar manner, television and theatre actor Gregory Harrison is calmly effective as the sincere (and sincerely homophobic) doctor who tries to return James to the straight and narrow based on a very narrow reading of the Bible.

Michael Grant, who already has a string of impressive credits, turns in a strong performance as the troubled teenager. He is also, apparently, a talented pianist who performs his own keyboard work. Green and Harrison are both fine as unintentional rivals for James’ affections.

“Fair Haven” is a moving film that deserves great success on the LGBT festival circuit and in theaters after its world premiere here in D.C. Director Kerstin Karlhuber and her cast and crew tell a timely tale with appropriate style and simple grace.

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