by Lee Purvey
Much has been made of the overlap between Krisha, which chronicles a recovering addict’s holiday reunion with her estranged son’s family, and its writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ actual life. Shot in Shults’ Texas home with a cast that features many of his relatives, the making of Krisha was very much a family affair, which is appropriate: Shults has cited a cousin’s holiday relapse and his broken relationship with his alcoholic father as the film’s twin inspirations. The project as a whole takes the pathos of art-making to an entirely new level.
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Producers: Justin R. Chan, Chase Joliet, Trey Edward Shults, Wilson Smith
Writer: Trey Edward Shults
Cinematographer: Drew Daniels
Music: Brian McOmber
Cast: Krisha Fairchild, Olivia Grace Applegate, Bryan Casserly, Alex Dobrenko, Chris Doubek, Billie Fairchild, Robyn Fairchild, Victoria Fairchild
Premiere: March 16, 2015 – South by Southwest Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: March 18, 2016
US Distributor: A24
More than just a practice of healing, this process produces a bounty of moments of arresting authenticity, including several ad-libbed scenes featuring Shults’ real-life grandmother, who suffers from dementia. But the method speaks to a more general distinction in tone and mission that sets Krisha apart from so many other stories treating addiction. The protagonist’s downward spiral is familiar, but -- a plainly riveting performance by Krisha Fairchild (Shults’ aunt) notwithstanding -- Shults’ film really distinguishes itself in its willingness to engage the experience of those surrounding the addict. Literature, film, and especially TV are full of similar examples on the surface; but, it seems, they almost always fall into villainous caricatures of one sort or another. On the other end of the spectrum, films centered around the addicts themselves, especially in the independent cinema (think Requiem for a Dream, Leaving Las Vegas, Trainspotting) typically place their protagonists in an exotically furnished vacuum away from non-addicts in which to play out their destiny -- whether tragic or transcendent -- mostly unbothered.
Still, this world revolves around Krisha -- sometimes literally, as in a meticulously choreographed shot that follows her as she anxiously circles the home’s kitchen. This is just one of several whizkid set pieces from the first-time director, who got some of his earliest professional experience on the set of several Terrence Malick films. Foremost among these, certainly, is the several-minute-long opening shot that shows Krisha’s arrival at her sister’s doorstep, toting a large suitcase. Much of the shot shows the actress from behind, with Fairchild’s face hidden, but when her character stumbles, momentarily losing control of her suitcase, her cold utterance of the word “fuck” speaks as much to her character as the most evocative gestural nuance.
Indeed, without a performer of Fairchild’s caliber, it’s doubtful that the film would carry the impact that it does. The actress’ tonal command is unbelievable, especially when paired with Shults, who plays her son Trey with strategic inhibition. The naturalness with which she transitions from lecturing her son for not following his filmmaking dreams to pleading for clemency when he snaps at her does much to highlight her character’s tenuous grasp on control.
It’s only when this grasp finally slips that Shults’ gold touch goes missing, with the film’s climax comprising an effective but unoriginal expressionist nightmare. Still, this kind of momentary lapse never threatens to obscure the integrity and power at this film’s core. For some, the film’s hyper-autobiography might beg the question of what Shults will do once he runs out of stories. Far better to wait and see, and enjoy this promising new voice in American cinema.