By Elias Savada.
Other than a kitchen catastrophe, there’s not a sloppy moment in Trey Edward Shults’ micro-budgeted, crowdsourced Krisha, an incredibly well-constructed debut feature that plays like a home movie gone awry. Considering that the director-writer-editor, just 25 years old, shot it over a mere 9-day period in his parents’ home two summers ago, confirms what festival fans discovered last year: here is an incredibly talented filmmaker delivering an exceptional film with a well-focused script. Shults’ blend of actors with actual family and friends reveals a daring concept that results in a strong dramatic piece with a keen sense of observation. Shot in an up close and personal cinéma vérité style, the camerawork by d.p. Drew Daniels is as precise as the cast’s blocking is so finely orchestrated. The digicam forever follows the family around the house as they inhale, exhale, and stifle, while the audience gets knocked about by all the furiously determined roving, swirling, circling, zooming, and panning.
Set over the course of a brief and brutal Thanksgiving reunion, the baa-baa-black sheep of this family gathering is the titular Krisha, an aging hippie cautiously gauging the waters at her sister’s nicely appointed Texas home, chipping in with the chores and wondering how much of her dark past will play out with her various relatives, especially Trey, her nephew (Shults, also in good command as an actor). Sadly for her, there’s not a lot of forgiveness in the air. The family’s glares are merciless.
Krisha is Krisha Fairchild, an on-again-off-again actress with bit and feature parts tossed her way over a lifetime of this and that. If you remember her at all, it’s probably as Chapman’s mother in Andrew Piddington’s The Killing of John Lennon ten years ago. Every frame of her in Krisha is a new revelation. I kept thinking of Gena Rowlands brilliant turn as Mabel Longhetti in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974) while watching Krisha dissolve into her bipolar toxicity. I can’t recall such a fearless performance in recent memory. She was retired in her 60s when she got a call from her nephew to be in a short film, a predecessor to this feature. Yeah, that nephew would be Trey Edward Shults. Both versions won accolades at successive SXSW Film Festivals.
When Krisha’s not tempering her mental state with a variety of prescription medications, she might be secretly popping the cork on a bottle of red. Her sedated/agitated state only provides a false façade as the anxious, famished family prepares for the big meal. Sure it’s football season, but the touchdown that is the centerpiece of Krisha’s performance, shown in agonizing slo-mo, is just the start of Shults’ ability to amp up the tension. And who better to be Krisha’s angry sisterly foil, Robyn, than Trey’s actual mom and Krisha’s real sister, Robyn Fairchild. You can’t tell she’s a non-professional. Another amateur was Billie Fairchild, the grandmother, who didn’t know she was making a film because she suffers dementia. Trey hid the camera “and just played the scene out.” Among the pros in the cast, veteran Texas actor Bill Wise offers some of the film’s few lighter moments as Krisha’s wry brother-in-law, Doyle, who rants about the too many dogs his wife collects.
Technically, the film has a well-defined, realistic look. There was an interesting decision to use different aspect ratios for emotional emphasis. The 1.85:1 screen widens to 2.35:1 for one scene, but at the hour mark (of the 83-minute movie), it settles at the old Academy (1.33:1) format, just after Krisha has left an apologetic and scornful message with a former/current/ex-boyfriend. The downward spiral has intensified and thus the camera further imprisons her personal frustrations. Also, the pull focus is no longer bright and cherry. Blurred home movies provide an unsettling backdrop. Some of the editing is disjointed, in an effective way. The score by Brian McOmber and sound design seems like a weird blend of angry violins, bass rumblings, woodpeckers, and drums.
Too many drugs? Too much booze? Whatever the cause of Krisha’s demise, Fairchild’s ability to reveal her character’s demons are raw and powerful. You truly believe she’s a borderline psychotic (just ask her dog).
Flat out, Shults makes a stunning debut. Krisha is an intrepid and mighty storm rocking the indie world.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.