Wednesday, April 13, 2016
"Krisha" is one of the strongest feature film debuts I've ever seen by a young filmmaker.
The fact the film was shot in nine days using a five-figure Kickstarter campaign is impressive. But what truly astounds is that writer/director/co-star Trey Edward Schults used his own family and friends as the cast, shot in his own parents' home, based on an incident that really happened during a Thanksgiving gathering.
If you think, based on that description, that this is some sort of semi-pro effort, the sort of thing that rarely sees light beyond the festival circuit, you'd be very wrong. It is an incredibly poised, emotionally mature and technically assured piece of work -- the sort of lightning in a bottle most veterans hope to capture once or twice in a career.
The performances are uniformly marvelous, which is more impressive when one considers many of them are non-actors. They largely use their real-life names, including the central character. For some their only other experience was playing in a short film version of this same story Schults made in 2014.
Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) is both the subject and object of the film. A sixtysomething woman who walked out on her extended family a decade ago, she rejoins them at a critical stage -- for them, and for her. She has just reached the point of desiring to reintegrate herself into their midst and atone for old sins. They have just reached the threshold of being willing to accept her. (Though some more so than others.)
This simple family gathering becomes Krisha's crucible. She reacts, and is reacted to. Past resentments quickly flare to the surface. There is reason for hope and cause for dismay. Eventually things reach a crisis point from which there is no return. (About which I'll say no more.)
Fairchild is Schults' real-life aunt but plays his mother here; he plays himself (or a version thereof). Abandoned by his mom as a kid, Trey is now about to graduate from college with a business management degree. Krisha presses him to not abandon his youthful dream of becoming a filmmaker. He is clearly unreceptive to her overtures.
Fairchild is a remarkable physical subject for the camera. With a strong, magnificent face and flowing mane of silver hair, she resembles a powerful Earth goddess traipsing among the mortals. But Krisha (the character) is a bundle of wounds and needs. In between the frantic give-and-take of a large house full of people, she makes short, urgent phone calls, apparently to a new lover. Ostensibly checking in, they sound just this side of desperation.
Unexplainedly, Krisha is missing part of an index finger, which she keeps wrapped in bandages and occasionally spritzes with medicine. It's a direct, if understated, visual message: she's lost parts of herself, parts of her loved ones' lives are missing to her.
The family seems a typical upper-middle-class one. There are so many people, we're not sure at first exactly who is who -- it's possible Krisha doesn't know, either. There are new spouses, a new baby, strapping young men horsing around and watching sports, Krisha's sisters (Robyn and Victoria Fairchild), their husbands, someone's daughter, and later Krisha's aged mother (Ballie Fairchild) freshly picked up from the nursing home.
There are two older men, husbands of the sisters, fathers of the sons, who are quite different from each other. Becker (Chris Doubek) is a doctor and an introverted bundle of nerves. He seems to seek the shadows in every social encounter. But Krisha spies on a moment of genuine warmth between him and Trey, and grows envious.
Then there's Doyle, an acerbic type who always must be the center of attention. It's a scene-stealing performance by Bill Wise, as written and played. Doyle is part Southern gentleman, part witty raconteur, part pain-in-the-ass-for-its-own-sake. He's very good at picking apart the foibles of others; less so at aiming that pinched gaze at himself.
"I'm goddamn Superman; I eat leather and shit saddles!" is one of his many annunciations. Things like this are said in a joshing tone, but we suspect he really embraces it.
Schults' camera wanders through the household like am apparition, seeking out pools of conversation and encounters. The roving cinematography is reminiscent of later Terrence Malick (under whom Schults interned), while the overlapping dialogue is straight from Robert Altman's repertoire. (If you're doing to steal, steal from the best.)
The director uses these techniques to great effect. We feel caught up in the whirlwind as Krisha experiences it. Sometimes we see things from her perspective; sometimes the reverse shot as she is gazed upon and judged. In one very powerful sequence late in the film, we revisit previous encounters and see how they registered from Krisha's point of view.
He also integrates music beautifully into the proceedings, such as a Nina Simone song that accompanies Krisha during the beginning of her downfall. It's amazing how delusion can often feel so magical ... at least for a while.
"Krisha" takes the quotidian stresses and strains of an unremarkable family and transforms them into a subtle, violent warfare of the soul. Trey Edward Shults: More, please.