Krisha (2015) Film Review, a movie written and directed by Trey Edward Schults, starring Trey Edward Schults, Krisha Fairchild, Robyn Fairchild, Olivia Grace Applegate, Bryan Casserly, Alex Dobrenko, Chris Doubek, Chase Joliet, and Bill Wise.
Krisha is deeply unnerving from its opening shot. In tight, particularly glamour-free close-up, Krisha Fairchild stares directly into the camera, her eyes glazed and empty, though we sense conflict and fire just behind them. The camera zooms in on the vacant torment of her mug while a soundtrack of shrieking violins builds from a rattle to a howl. This type of music cue is distinctly reminiscent of opulent, gothic horror movies, films like The Exorcist, Hammer horror, and the work of Dario Argento. This is an American drama about an upper-middle class family’s Thanksgiving holiday. It’s also a horror film. It’s a horror film with no body count, and no bloodshed, mind you. 27-year-old wunderkind Trey Edward Shults’s debut feature is about a woman in the throes of alcoholism and drug addiction. This is terrifying, disturbing thematic material indeed, and this is one of the best and most blunt films I’ve ever seen about it.
Shults filmed Krisha in ten days in his family’s home, on a budget of $14,260 fed by a Kickstarter Campaign. His real family and friends make up the cast, playing somewhat fictionalized versions of themselves, though Shults has been relatively vague in differentiating fact from fiction in the press. Fairchild, Trey’s aunt, portrays his estranged mother, who is attending her first family Thanksgiving in ten years, her absence due to a struggle with substance abuse and other hardships that are only faintly alluded to– though one relative tells her quite pointedly that she is “a leaver, an abandoner, and heartbreak incarnate.” Much like troubled, unpredictable Krisha’s descent upon her family’s festivities, Krisha has taken to the film festival circuit like a bat out of hell. Last year, the film premiered at South by Southwest, where it won the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award in the narrative feature competition. It was later selected to screen in competition at Cannes in the International Critics’ Week section.
Particularly impressive given that this a first feature by such a young man, this is a slick, confidently directed, and polished effort. It’s also stylistically diverse and ambitious without every seemingly overly or self-consciously so. Shults takes cues from the films of Cassavetes, for sure. The film is so naturalistic that it would appear the actors are improvising everything. But because the narrative is so strong and moves so fluidly, this is obviously not the case. For all I’ve done to paint the film as horrifying and unpleasant, it is worth mentioning that much of the film is very funny. Anyone with a family will find the early scenes of Shults’s clan, in all their imperfections and eccentricities, completely familiar. According to Shults, many members of his family had previous acting experience. Every performance is strong, and we never feel they’re being exploited. This is careful, patient, personal storytelling. Shults was a film-loader and intern on three Terrence Malick films, and this influence comes through, particularly in the dreamy, often quite pretty photography by cinematographer Drew Daniels. But whereas Malick seems to have recently lost his way–Knight of Cups was released just weeks ago, and was narratively inept, meandering, and bordered on self-parody–in 80 minutes that flash right by, Shults’s story is so direct, brutal, and leaves one hell of a first impression.
Much like the film and its director, Fairchild is truly a revelation. “Fearless” is a descriptor that is ridiculously, laughably overused in reference to screen actors, but I can’t remember the last time I saw someone so uninhibited and completely willing to expose what’s inside of them on screen. Poor Krisha is so eager to reunite and mend bridges with her family– she insists on making the turkey, which is of “mutant” size given the number of mouths to feed– but she is a very sick woman, naive to the reality of her situation, and unprepared to live life. It’s possible to overcome addiction, but for all of her good intentions, Krisha doesn’t seem to have the first clue as to where to start doing the work.
Watching Krisha was the most visceral experience I’ve had at the movies so far this year. With crystal-clear storytelling, and a disarming, sometimes downright spooky sound design mixed at Skywalker Sound, Shults has made a film that is obviously cathartic, if not a straight-up exorcism of his family’s demons. He has stated that the film is inspired by real-life Krisha’s relapse at a family Thanksgiving years ago. I’ve seen very few films that competently handle this thematic material. A relapse is so painful and frightening, and much of Krisha effects the audience like a great horror film. When it was over, I felt exhausted, profoundly sad, and hurt, frankly. But I’m glad this movie exists, the same way I’m glad any movie about marginalized people exists. This is a truthful and enlightening film about a drug addict; it doesn’t hate nor condemn Krisha. This film is made with compassion, but also excruciating honesty. It’s an astonishing debut, and I hope Trey Edward Shults is just getting warmed up.
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