Monday, April 4, 2016

Krisha (****)

Written and Directed by Trey Edward Shults


When's the last time an American filmmaker had as strong a debut film as Trey Edward Shults' Krisha? The movie is so confident, so breathtakingly beautiful, so vulnerable with its feelings and situations. Shults made the film with the help of family and friends (and a successful Kickstarter campaign) but this does not have the dollar-bill indie-ness of a Duplass brothers movie. No, Shults is actually audacious enough to make Krisha as cinematic as possible. The film is a chamber drama about family, addiction, regret and redemption; its pain is palpable and scathing. It's a tight but fluid hurricane of a film. The allusions to other filmmakers are there - amongst others, Paul Thomas Anderson and Ingmar Bergman are very present - and yet, Shults still manages to make this film so very much his own. Based on his one film, we can say that a great director has arrived, one who understands both the importance of strong narrative and visual composition. Starring mostly his friends and relatives (nearly all of the characters share the names of the actors who play them), Shults is fascinatingly blurring the lines between fiction and docudrama - the seeds of familial strife being exorcised by cinema. Crafting this steaming of a drama is difficult, and only works if the pain is acutely felt. The strain that family puts on you is real, and Krisha puts that strain on full display.

The titular Krisha is played by Krisha Fairchild, a veteran actress and aunt to Shults. Krisha is a recovering addict, whose latest bout with sobriety has given her the courage to attend Thanksgiving dinner at the home of her sister, Robyn (Robyn Fairchild). Robyn has raised Krisha's son, Trey (the director steps in to play his own surrogate), after Krisha's various issues led her to disappear into a self-destructive whirlwind that is hardly touched on throughout the film, but heavily felt. Krisha's arrival immediately adds a tension to Robyn's home. The rustle and bustle of the various family members - a handful of rambunctious twenty-something men, a newborn baby, a dozen barking dogs - plays chopsticks on Krisha's already fragile nerves. She has a selection of pills she is taking, but she swears they are all legally prescribed. Amongst the family members present are Doyle (Bill Wise, one of the few non-relative actor), a bombastic loudmouth with a twangy drawl who's comfort level with his own testy demeanor can be equal parts endearing and unpleasant. Doyle is direct with Krisha: she brings with her a history of abuse and abandonment, and her presence will not immediately make right the disturbances and heartbreak she has caused. Krisha continues to promise that she has worked hard to make herself right for this moment, but the family is uneasy, filled with feelings that only Doyle is willing to voice aloud.

More than anything, Krisha wants to do her best to repair the relationship she fractured with Trey. Her simultaneous gratefulness and resentfulness at Robyn for raising Trey simmers under the surface of her visit. There never seems to be a good time to talk to Trey alone and he never seems very interested. He sees past her, refuses to look her in the eye. Krisha decides to cook the Thanksgiving turkey, it's a decision that's very much important to her, and Robyn provides her with all the necessary resources. We get the idea that this is something that Krisha has done before. As she chops, scoops and prepares the thirty pound bird she can feel everybody else watching her out of the corner of her eye - even if they aren't, the watchfulness feels real. The arrival of Krisha's mother (Billie Fairchild) is another obstacle. Her mother is decrepit, forgetful, and upon arrival takes a few moments to truly understand who each person is. Krisha hasn't seen her own mother in so long, that the emotions come flowing without warning or hesitance. Krisha has been working so hard and so long for this Thanksgiving and she still feels unprepared. Addiction makes you selfish, uncaring but it does not kill love. When you are recovering, this is when you need the people you love the most, but the horrible irony is that addiction makes you hurt those same loved ones, creating a vicious cycle of loneliness and depression that plays to the heart of what Krisha has to say.

I can't seem to find much in the way of explanation as to how much these actors are playing themselves versus playing a character (though it should be noted that probably Shults' biggest directorial misstep is casting himself in the pivotal role of Trey - he's not the quality of actor, yet, that he is director), and I think Shults enjoys playing that game of fact and fiction. How much are Krisha Fairchild and Shults acting and how much are they dissecting their own pasts? The film's astonishing editing (Shults again) takes the controversial route of actually showing you different takes of the same scenes. The motif adds to the film's disorienting tone without confusing you. Shown from Krisha's point-of-view, the movie begins to come apart as her self-medication gets heavier and heavier. Shults and his cinematographer, Drew Daniels, shoot this film at times like a domestic drama and at other times like a suspense thriller. They even switch aspect ratios at various times (one of the movie's greatest sequences is set to Nina Simone's beautiful "Just In Time", and is the only time when the movie goes full-blown widescreen). And yet, with all this tinkering and trickery, it never feels like Shults is experimenting. These are crucial filmmaking choices that do nothing but elevate the increasingly claustrophobic narrative. It's only natural that the film's frills begin to come apart as Krisha's plan falls to pieces, but its still surprising to see with how much skill Shults is able to pull it off.

Krisha Fairchild is not a known actress, but her performance here achieves the heights of some of her greatest peers. There's so much information withheld throughout Krisha, and you'll spend a good time of your initial viewing trying to make sense of just how everyone in this extended family relates to everyone else. What Fairchild achieves is something magnificent. She's desperate and pathetic, is able to keep the empathy of the audience without betraying the character's destructive tendencies. Krisha's first half is a tense balancing act of a broken woman overextending herself in an attempt to appear whole. She's not fooling anyone. It's almost patronizing the way the whole family does their best to make her feel comfortable. The tip of Krisha's index finger is missing on one hand, and it's wrapped in an obnoxious, hard-to-miss bandage that everyone pretends is invisible. Fairchild lays Krisha bare, her shame present and loud for all to see. She does her best to play nice, cook the turkey, have a few laughs with the irascible Doyle, but much like the timer she sets for cooking the turkey, the film is ticking toward her inevitable downfall. The tragedy of the film is telegraphed throughout. Unlike other indie dysfunctional family films, ala Rachel Getting Married or Pieces of April, Krisha does not believe that single moments repair deep wounds. Family pain is sustained and forever, and the calm will always be followed by the well-predicted storm.

It's hard to imagine a film better than Krisha coming out in 2016. There's something to be said about a film that has you leaving the theater absolutely flattened, emptied, left for dead. There's something else to be said about a film that achieves this affect with a first-time director and a mostly amateur cast. August: Osage County had about ten times the budget and a hundred times the starpower and didn't come anywhere near the effect of Krisha as a family chamber drama. There's nothing particularly new about Shults' narrative. We've seen the story of the ne'er-do-well looking to make right. Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married is probably the closest we can come to a comparison. That was one of Demme's very best, and the fact that Shults can make a film that comes close to a superior work from one of our best living filmmakers is impressive indeed. As great as it is, it's hard to imagine Krisha finding the audience it deserves, and if Shults or Fairchild do ever get the appropriate amount of exposure, it may end up being for a much showier follow-up. As it stands, this film is a stunning debut, and a remarkable film at any rate. Its understanding of real human tragedy was so uncomfortably personal and yet so refreshingly new. Its seamless blending of emotional turmoil and wondrous filmmaking will likely put it amongst the best films of the year.

UPDATE: Since posting this, I found this article from Indiewire shortly after Krisha's sweep of awards at the SXSW Festival. It details the ties between the film and Shults' actual family. I great read for anyone who's either seen the film or plans to see it.

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