A few weeks ago, I wrote about Akron, a new movie we’d watched about two young men who meet and fall in love. One of the interesting, refreshing things about that movie for me was how they treated the characters’ sexual orientation as a non-issue.
In contrast, last weekend we watched Fair Haven, which I also liked, though for different reasons. In this one, the sexual orientation of the main character was the core issue, creating the primary conflict in the story.
James is a young man with dreams of becoming a concert pianist; he’s been accepted to a music program at a prestigious college in Boston. When we first meet James, he’s getting off a train, baggage in hand. (Apt symbolism!) Through flashbacks, we discover he’s been to a live-in facility to help him cope with his mother’s recent death. While there, he was also subjected to “conversion” therapy, designed to turn him from gay to straight.
Author Note: Because of the strong depiction of “Conversion Therapy” in the movie, and the important message presented, I intend to have a second, separate post to discuss that element.
He’s returning home, armed with some harsh “biblical” answers, including guilt that his orientation might have been the reason God took his mother. He’s determined to live in a way that would make her proud, convinced he can marry a nice girl, have a family. Perhaps, he can also re-establish a relationship with his detached father, who meets him at the train station.
The first words spoken are James, telling his father, “I’m better now. I think it helped.”
On the ride home with his father, James learns his college fund has been spent to help pay for his mother’s medical bills and funeral costs. His father further dashes his dream by insisting James consider changing his major to agricultural, so he can eventually take over the farm—a future that doesn’t interest the angered young man.
“Sometimes life isn’t fair; we both know that,” his father explains.
James dutifully agree to help out while taking courses at the local community college. Part of his responsibilities includes transporting produce to a local market, where he runs into Charlie, his boyfriend from before he went to the facility.
The initial encounters are tense and volatile.
“They got to you, didn’t they?” Charlie observes.
“We can’t be friends anymore.”
“Friends?” Charlie questions.
“I can’t be around you,” James tell him.
Since they’ll be seeing one another on a regular basis, they agree to civil association. When James shows up one day to find Charlie’s been beaten up while walking home from work, he insists on driving him home until Charlie’s car is fixed. This time together, and their conversations, give us most of the backstory—the death of James’ mother, the difficulties with his father, James and Charlie’s past relationship, and James’ time at the “treatment” facility.
When James’ inner turmoil boils up, he demands to go to church, where he meets and begins dating the preacher’s daughter.
Fair Haven is slow-paced, but that’s not a negative. It served to show the journey of these people as they deal with their own unfair circumstances.
It’s not primarily about James coming to terms with his sexual orientation, or his feelings for Charlie. The heart of the movie is the father and son relationship. It’s about family, grief, love, and confronting personal struggles.
It’s about acceptance.
I typically get bored with too much teen angst, but here, I found myself identifying with, invested in and rooting for James, and Charlie.
Especially for James + Charlie. (Jarlie?)
Personally, I found Fair Haven both emotional, and emotionally satisfying.
- James (Michael Grant, The Secret Life of the American Teenager) is trying to please his father while dealing with the loss of the mother. He want to be there for his father, but the price will be the end of his musical dreams. There’s also the inner struggle with his sexuality, his faith and his suppressed feelings for Charlie.
Grant gives a solid portrayal as the pensive, sad young man who’s navigating the tension between his goals, his feeling, his desires and those imposed on him by his father. (As an accomplished pianist, Grant also provides stellar musical performances of several classical pieces.)
- James’ father, Richard, is saddled with the full responsibility of the Fair Haven Orchard, that’s gradually losing out to the organic fruit market. It’s been in his family for several generations, and he feels obligated to pass it on to his son. He clearly doesn’t understand his son’s sexuality, or his interest in music. He compensates his grief with constant work to make the farm successful and alcohol.
Richard is played deftly by Dukes of Hazzard’s Tom Wopat. (Who knew Wopat had this level of gravitas in him?)
- Charlie (Josh Green) is sincere and kind, and still carrying a torch for James. He makes it clear he doesn’t support his ex-boyfriend’s attempt to change, but is willing to accept a friendship in order to be there for James. Charlie is a balancing and catalytic force for James, pushing to honestly examine what happened at the facility, asking questions like “What did they do to you?” and “Are you happier?” (Clearly James is not happy; in fact, the first time we see a genuine smile from James is two-thirds through the movie, and it’s when he’s with Charlie.)
Surrounding and interacting with James are two secondary characters, integral to the story but not much screen time.
- The enigmatic Dr. Gallagher, who runs the “treatment” facility. We see him only in flashbacks as he conducts one-on-one sessions with James and leads group meeting with young men and women there to change their sexual orientation. Dr. Gallagher is played by Gregory Harrison (Trapper John, Rizzoli & Isles).
There’s no exposition to let us know why he runs this program (e.g., many in this role have their own journey of same-sex struggles), other than the traditional, conservative theology that homosexuality is “sin” and God’s intention is one man and one woman!
(More on him in my next post, where I'll give some in-depth analysis about the way this movie addressed "ex-gay" treatments.)
- Suzy, the bubbly preacher’s daughter. It’s obvious she’s interested in James and others around them actively push the two together. For their first date, James takes her to “Ruby’s,” a local dive bar and diner. He tries to apologize, but with a tone of rebellion, says she’s excited having dinner at the place her father deems a “pit of sin.” She reveals that she remembers James from high school, and that he was friends with Charlie. She asks about the rumor Charlie might be gay. She is romantically forward, initiating the good-night kiss at the end of the date, while James asks to move the relationship more slowly.
For me, Suzy is merely a cutout in the story—not well-defined, there primarily to give James the “straight” option he’s told he should desire. (She’s played with effervescence by Gregory Harrison’s real-life daughter.)
Once James and Charlie reconnect—talking about their past, remembering how things were, discussing how they felt—it’s not difficult to see where the story is heading. When James finally kisses Charlie, it's unexpected, adorably simple and immensely rewarding.
(Well, probably not to those who still believe being gay is a sin and can...should...be changed. Or at least, suppressed and resisted.)
Admittedly, there was some missing exposition in the backstory and unresolved plotlines I would’ve liked to know to make the movie more…satisfying for me. (Perhaps it’s the writer in me.)
Examples: Why did James go to the facility? What did Charlie know about the facility, or why James was leaving? Was it primarily to deal with grief, or was it about his sexuality? How long was he away? Did his parents even know James was gay?
Fair Haven is a gentle movie, even when it could have been harsher. (e.g., “ex-gay” treatments, the emotional repercussions, the drunk father dealing with his loss) Ultimately, is an uplifting movie, with a happy ending...though I felt that was a bit rushed. While I was pleased with most of the resolutions (James and Charlie; James and his father), I wish there had been something about what happened with Suzy, his “girlfriend.” (Since the tagline is "Everyone deserves a chance at finding happiness," what about her?)
But I reckon there’s only so much that can squeezed into 90 minutes.
The movie doesn't have an MPAA rating, but would probably be comparable to PG-13, with some profanity, mild sexual situations, but nothing graphic. (Trust me, I've seen steamier guy-on-guy action on network television.)