In Review!: “Krisha”

Family dynamics and anxieties abound in the SXSW Grand Jury Award and Audience Award-winning Krisha, a gobsmacking debut from young director Trey Edward Shults. Returning to her family after an addiction-fueled estrangement, the titular Krisha is aiming to insert herself into her bustling family on a Thanksgiving weekend. However, this isn’t some standard familial melodrama, but a psychological deep-dive into its protagonist’s fragile nervous system, with Shults emerging with one of the most distinctive debut directors in recent years.

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The titular Krisha (played ferociously real by Krisha Fairchild) has removed herself from her family for unknown specifics, but we’re left to deduce that the cause was alcohol, some kind of spiritual retreat, or a combination of both. With even Krisha being vague on details, we’re left to focus on the present circumstances and the weight of the past, but not the events of past itself. Though greeted under varying degrees of acceptance from the extended family, it’s the cold distance from her son (played by director Shults) that sets Krisha on her inevitable spiral.

Don’t let it’s micro-indie status fool you: this film has big ambitions and avoids cliched pitfalls at every turn.

Bursting in early sequences with observational details, Shults drops us in the hubbub of a family holiday that will ring idiosyncratically true to those of us with a lively large family. The angle here is Krisha’s perspective though, with editing, sound, and score all serving to immerse the audience in her overstimulated perspective – like a raw nerve repeatedly taunted. Whole swaths of dialogue are drowned out, irrelevant for their content and in deference to Krisha’s unease. Though often exhausting, Shults is equally confident in releasing tensions with sharp wit, keeping the film from becoming a punishing exercise. Broad laughs from actor Bill Wise are both earned and necessary, punching up the few sections where there is emphasis on the dialogue.

The soundscape of the film is terrifying, constantly keeping us as on edge as Fairchild’s portrayal. The score by Brian McOmber mirrors Krisha’s evolving despair, rage, and disconnect with the same clarity of the woman playing her. The elements are all flawlessly in sync, a bit of a rarity for this kind of homegrown effort.

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Shults cast his family as altered versions of themselves, with his aunt Fairchild reassigned as prodigal mother. Vacillating between scripted dialogue and improvised moments, the ensemble functions symbiotically but always on the periphery, as this is squarely Fairchild’s showcase.

And what a performance. Inextricably connected to the rhythms of the film, Fairchild is no cipher submitting to her director’s point of view. She draws us in and confounds us in equal measure, portraying the character version of Krisha with uncompromised honesty and a motivated recklessness that feeds the acid opera of Shults’s design. It’s a performance that is at once painfully intimate and articulately bold, making Krisha’s inevitable decline a riveting watch for the actress’s keen observational insights. Beyond her relentless skill and devotion to the role (Fairchild is clearly working her ass off), her performance in consistently fascinating, especially during the film’s stylisticly risky moments. With creative leaps this unconventional and uncompromising, the potential for audience alienation (though this is decidedly not for everyone) is relieved by such a formidable lead that continues to surprise us with such deep honesty.

With some shades of Michael Haneke and David Lynch, Krisha is a fiercely original feat of filmmaking. With the dexterity on display, it’s no wonder that distributor A24 has leaped to snatch Shults up to develop his next two features, their first as a production company. Though the film is likely to fall far outside the mainstream upon release, its riches and complexity show that Shults has the goods to be the next big thing.

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Krisha was presented as part of the Columbus International Film & Video Festival and is playing this weekend in the American Independent section of AFI Fest.

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