An especially fraught Thanksgiving holiday brings a woman’s troubled, booze-soaked history into blistering yet compassionate focus in “Krisha,” an intimate and unnerving character study that marks a ferociously impressive feature debut for 26-year-old multihyphenate Trey Edward Shults. The winner of the grand jury award for narrative features at SXSW (as well as an elaboration of Shults’ prize-winning 2014 short of the same title), this Kickstarter-funded project reveals an elusive, formally sophisticated storytelling approach that neatly sidesteps the usual addiction/dysfunction cliches, its stylistic experimentation anchored by a subtly wounding performance from Krisha Fairchild in the eponymous lead role. More festival berths await, and while commercial prospects look decidedly modest, critical support should spur select arthouse bookings and discerning-viewer interest ahead of VOD play.
A Houston native, writer-director-editor-actor Shults began his career as an intern on Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and also worked on two of the filmmaker’s forthcoming projects, including the documentary “Voyage of Time.” Happily, he’s one of those rare acolytes for whom exposure to Malick’s working methods has inspired something more than a slavish imitation. Shults has cited the influence of another pioneering American independent, John Cassavetes, and there is unmistakably something of that director’s spirit in this highly personal and collaborative low-budget endeavor, which Shults shot over nine days at his parents’ house in Montgomery, Texas. Like so much of Cassavetes’s work, “Krisha” scrutinizes its characters’ faces with unsparing intensity, while its tale of a broken individual attempting to reconnect with her family after an untold absence seems to directly recall “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974).
The presence of a distinctive sensibility behind the camera is apparent from the lengthy, unbroken Steadicam shot that opens the picture, following silver-haired, sixtysomething hippie Krisha (Krisha Fairchild, Shults’ aunt) as she parks her car and rolls her suitcase into the home of her younger sister, Robyn (Robyn Fairchild, Shults’ mother), and her doctor husband (Chris Doubek). It’s Thanksgiving, and the house is swarming with friends and family, most of them in their 30s or younger. Yet the atmosphere in the room, while lively and welcoming, also feels strangely charged and unsettled, as if the arrival of this new guest had suddenly lowered the temperature.
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Krisha is greeted warmly enough (perhaps a bit too warmly), and she reciprocates with an eagerness to make herself useful, putting herself to work in the kitchen while Robyn heads out to fetch their wheelchair-bound mother (Billie Fairchild, Shults’ grandmother). As Krisha sets about gutting the turkey, Shults whips the character’s movements into a montage of high anxiety, his swift edits keeping time with the chop-chop-chop of the knife and the percolating rhythms of Brian McOmber’s score. By the time the music fades, the cutting slows and the mood relaxes, it’s clear that “Krisha” means to reveal its protagonist’s perspective not through exposition, but in the very texture of the filmmaking — varying its syntax so as to draw us ever deeper into one woman’s profound sense of alienation from those around her.
Shults’s approach craftily favors observation over exposition, and he proves as attentive to Krisha’s surroundings as he is to her inner life; we’re made continually aware of the teenagers laughing and goofing off in the background, along with the numerous dogs roaming the property, all of them enjoying the day with enviably carefree abandon. Meanwhile, old resentments spark between Krisha and an ornery, outspoken relative, Doyle (a hilarious Bill Wise), in a long, varied and remarkably improvised conversation that unfolds loosely throughout the film’s first half. But perhaps her most awkward and telling interaction occurs with Trey (Shults), a quiet young college student whom she approaches with the insistent warmth of an old friend, yet who obviously wants nothing to do with her.
Eventually we come to understand that Krisha’s presence in this house — her first time seeing her extended family in more than a decade — represents an attempt at atonement on her part, as well as an act of forgiveness on the part of someone else’s. It ends badly, of course, with a stolen bottle of wine and a climactic disaster that upends the festivities for all involved. Remarkably, however, the film sustains its intense commitment to emotional and psychological realism even as everything goes to hell. Whether we like it or not, we remain with Krisha at every step, watching in horror as the inevitable catastrophe seems to unspool in slow-motion. The aftermath, by contrast, seems more ambiguous; one late, angry spat could be either a figment of Krisha’s imagination, or an actual event obscured by the lingering effects of too much wine.
Shults based his story on real-life incidents and memories from his family’s history (sepia-toned photographs are shown but not explained), while he, his mother and his aunt all played altered versions of themselves — significantly so, in the case of Krisha herself. Whatever the ratio of truth to fiction, or exaggeration to fabrication, there’s nary a suggestion of home-movie self-indulgence in the terrifically accomplished performances. Presenting herself for the camera in vanity-shattering closeup, Krisha Fairchild (a film, TV and theater actress who’s never before received this sort of dramatic showcase) reveals her alter ego as a welter of contradictions: Friendly and engaged one minute, teetering on the brink of despair the next, she plays this woman’s breakdown as a sustained symphony with many notes. No less heartrending is Robyn Fairchild, a non-pro actress who brings an unshakable conviction to her scenes as the wife and mother who has long held this family together.
It’s that lingering, bone-deep empathy that brings a charge of authenticity to the film’s mercurial technique, which can seem as precociously showy as it is undeniably striking — never more so than when Shults and d.p. Drew Daniels occasionally shift aspect ratios (from 1.85:1 to 2.35:1 to 1.33:1) over the course of the taut 83-minute running time. For the most part, they employ the camera with grave deliberation, whether panning steadily back and forth during Krisha’s conversation with Doyle or taking in the house’s well-appointed, high-ceilinged interiors. McOmber’s score at times seems to channel some of the more audacious and inventive film music of recent years, from Jonny Greenwood’s compositions for Paul Thomas Anderson to Mica Levi’s dissonant strings in “Under the Skin.”