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Trey Edward Shults is hardly the first filmmaker to use the all-American Thanksgiving get-together to expose family anxieties. But with Krisha, his extraordinary debut feature, he brings a bracing originality to a familiar setup. Taking bold stylistic leaps and imbuing the drama with a thriller edge, Shults depicts holiday confrontations from the perspective of the title character, a sixtysomething woman returning to the fold with a tattered suitcase and some heavy emotional baggage. Krisha Fairchild’s lead performance starts off as riveting and grows ever more compelling as the brilliantly off-center story unwinds.
Winner of the grand jury prize for narrative feature at SXSW, the movie heralds a bright writing-directing talent in Shults and showcases a formidable actor in Fairchild, who until now has concentrated mainly on voice work. An arthouse-savvy distributor could capitalize on critical support.
Fairchild is the director’s aunt, and the cast also includes his mother and grandmother, along with friends and professional actors. However the offscreen bonds informed the film, Shults creates a potent shorthand for backstory, capturing an in-the-moment energy as the complex antihero steps into a loaded situation.
If she existed on the page rather than the screen, Krisha would be a most unreliable narrator. It’s clear from the outset that she’s a work-in-progress — hippie-ish but hard-edged, an underlying struggle propelling her and distracting her. Arriving on a suburban street of Texas mini-mansions, a corner of her skirt hanging out the truck door, she reminds herself to keep breathing and murmurs with worry as she approaches her sister’s house, after first ringing the wrong doorbell.
Within the bustling home of Robyn (Robyn Fairchild), where the relatives range in age from an infant to the women’s elderly mother (Billie Fairchild), relationships gradually come into focus. Key among them for Krisha is her strained connection with her son. Well played by the director, Trey is adamantly closed off to her, especially when she tries to bridge the gap.
But even among those who greet her warmly, it’s clear that this is a conditional welcome. Shults’ screenplay wisely refrains from detailing Krisha’s struggles with addiction, instead revealing all that’s necessary in her behavior. Even when she and her sister address the matter directly, in a powerfully played scene, Shults never indulges in therapy-speak; whether angry, sorrowful, deceitful or confessional, each word is alive, not designed to deliver a message.
From her bandaged, mysteriously damaged finger to the lockbox stocked with prescription pills, everything about Krisha speaks of dances with danger and the ongoing work of preventing another such pas de deux. In Fairchild’s nuanced portrayal, doubt and fear cloud Krisha’s eyes. She makes the pain behind her character’s every forced smile deeply felt, but also the inner strength that she can access only intermittently.
Shooting in the filmmaker’s parents’ house in Montgomery, Texas, Shults and d.p. Drew Daniels have put the space to eloquent use, the two-story living area in particular, with the RED camera making 360-degree sweeps as Krisha takes in the activity around her. Shults has a feel for the false notes in the sometimes overemphatic fun. The tension mounts as cousins wrestle, Grandma recalls her mother’s cruelties and insecurities, and a young married couple tease each other about sex.
Krisha’s isolation amid the noise is both poignant and threatening. The creeping dread is heightened by Tim Rakoczy’s sound design and the strings-and-digital score by Brian McOmber, which stands front and center with the dynamic visuals. Two shifts in aspect ratio (from standard 1:85 to 2:35 widescreen, and finally to 1:33), though organically executed, are unnecessary. The performances and fluent camerawork require no such changes in the frame to convey the sense of a world closing in on Krisha.
As he sharpens the double-edged sword of family, Shults uses humor, too, to pierce the surface. While one of Krisha’s brothers-in-law (Chris Doubek) keeps a benign distance, consumed with his seemingly endless gadget woes, the other, played by a superbly mordant Bill Wise, shifts from irreverent humor to outright belligerence. His caustic comments are not without sound observations, but the viewer is in Krisha’s corner, however unconvincing she might be when she says that she’s “working on becoming a more spiritual person.”
The story will eventually draw the viewer outside Krisha’s perspective, but the beauty of the film is that its compassion deepens along with its very real sense of horror — compassion not just for Krisha but for those who still love her or have given up on trying. “You are heartbreak incarnate,” one character tells her, and words that are at first off-putting soon inspire sympathy. The audience, too, is among those left heartbroken in Krisha’s wake.
Cast: Krisha Fairchild, Robyn Fairchild, Bill Wise, Chris Doubek, Olivia Grace Applegate, Chase Joliet, Brian Casserly, Alex Dobrenko, Trey Edward Shults, Billie Fairchild, Victoria Fairchild
Screenwriter-director-editor: Trey Edward Shults
Producers: Justin R. Chan, Trey Edward Shults, Wilson Smith, Chase Joliet
Executive producers: Jonathan R. Chan, J.P. Castel
Director of photography: Drew Daniels
Composer: Brian McOmber
Sound design: Tim Rakoczy
No rating, 81 minutes
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