There’s virtually no drama in the story of a successfully recovered addict, plodding dutifully through the daily fight for sobriety. But there’s plenty of drama in a story about addicts buckling under pressure, giving in to their worst impulses when it matters most. That simple equation tends to spell doom for even the most well-meaning, recovering cinematic addicts. So many films about recovery follow a familiar, wearying pattern of struggle and collapse. At the same time, familiarity with the way so many of these movies pan out just adds to the tension, and builds the stakes higher.
That’s part of what makes a movie like Trey Edward Shults’ debut drama Krisha so nerve-racking. The eponymous protagonist, an emotionally vulnerable alcoholic, is trying not to let her family down over the course of a painful Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, Shults is trying not to fall into the long-established pattern of addiction movies, from classics like The Lost Weekend to more recent indies like Smashed. The odds are against both from the start, giving the film a feeling of futility and fatality to go with its already considerable emotional heft.
Krisha, which won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature at its 2015 SXSW debut, is a second shot at this specific personal story for the writer-director. After a disastrous first attempt to shoot a version of the film in 2012, Shults edited some of the footage into a short that won a Special Jury award at SXSW in 2014. Rallying behind the short’s buzz, he ran a successful Kickstarter for funding, and shot a second version of the feature in his parents’ home, using his family as the primary cast. It’s an appropriate treatment for a story inspired by real incidents involving his family members, and it makes for an intimate, ragged drama where the emotions on display feel unusually real.
Shults’ aunt Krisha Fairchild stars as Krisha, a 60-something woman attempting her first Thanksgiving with her sister and her extended family in a decade. From the moment she shows up, sweating, swearing, and offering a forced smile as she hugs one relative after another, the tension she brings into the household is subtly obvious. Over the course of one long day, those tensions mostly simmer. Shults’ camera roves around the house, watching four generations of family at leisure, with no particular rush to advance the story. A pair of new parents cradle their baby and joke privately about sex. The young men of the family arm-wrestle, sneak off to watch porn, and horse around with each other and the many household dogs. Krisha’s fragile, wheelchair-bound mother (Shults’ grandmother, Billie Fairchild) gets re-introduced to family members she can’t tell apart. Shults’ script doesn’t bother clarifying the specifics of the family tree, it just thrusts viewers into Krisha’s perspective, where most of these people are friendly strangers she can’t relate to after her long absence. Before long, it’s clear that only a few of them are important to her: her mother, her sister Robyn (Shults’ mother, Robyn Fairchild), and her estranged son Trey (Shults himself). All three of them represent different kinds of approval Krisha needs, and can’t get for various reasons.
But Krisha Fairchild’s raw performance gives these interactions an especially painful edge, as she fumbles to talk to Trey, or fights to get along with the family’s most outspoken member, Doyle (periodic Richard Linklater bit player Bill Wise). He’s the easiest person at the gathering to talk to, in part because he’s more caught up in his own dramas and disappointments than in hers, and his griping lets her feel like a person instead of a problem. But he’s also the one least likely to awkwardly pretend nothing’s going on. "I know you were wounded, like some damn bird that just hit one too many windshields," Doyle tells Krisha at one point. "But I’ll tell you what, them cars are getting faster, and them wings are getting weaker." That prediction feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Over and over, Shults’ camera aggressively pushes in toward his aunt’s face, finding the doubts and weaknesses her character is fighting to contain. The film becomes exhausting as it circles the gathering, like a predator waiting for an opportunity to pounce.
Shults’ previous film experience is largely on Terrence Malick films, as an intern on The Tree Of Life and a camera assistant on the upcoming Weightless and Voyage Of Time. He thankfully hasn’t absorbed Malick’s cosmic expansiveness and moody ephemerality, but the restlessness of his camera and his focus on tone both seem inspired by Malick’s work. Krisha sometimes gets choppy in the editing, most notably toward a muddled ending that reads like a self-destructive fantasy. But at other times, the film flows like a Malick project, in long, wandering shots and breathless close-ups. The emotions, though, are pure Cassavetes, with deep wells of hurt and frustration that feel like the shadows of Malick’s usual wonder and exaltation.
For a first film, made on a shoestring with a largely non-professional cast, Krisha is remarkably textured. Brian McOmber’s score adds urgency to otherwise-quiet scenes: His galloping percussion in the middle going, and horror-movie violins toward the end, suggest a racing heartbeat under Krisha’s hippie aphorisms and pretense at calm. But the scenes without music feel even more fraught. The cast feels comfortable with the naturalistic dialogue, and they create a convincingly intimate environment.
And Shults’ script is impressively minimalist, with no interest in backstory. The exact details of what Krisha did to earn her family’s distrust aren’t clear, and don’t matter. The film’s emotional thrust lies in the way Krisha watches them all, and Trey in particular, from around corners and in doorways. She’s visibly starving for the ease they have around each other, and resenting how tensions drop when she’s out of the room. And there’s power in the way she carefully, privately girds herself for dinner, donning jewelry, makeup, and a nice dress like armor that might save her from the fate everyone expects for her.
In a film as hungry for drama as its heroine is for acceptance, much of the tension is knowing how small her chances of recovery are. Shults is telling a personal story here, but he’s also wisely drawing on a familiar set of tropes, ones that implicate the audience in all sorts of interesting ways. Viewers can sympathize with the protagonist’s frustration at the disapproving scrutiny she’s under, which makes normalcy impossible. But they can also understand the family’s frustration at the trouble she brings with her, and the likelihood that she’ll ruin whatever comfort they’ve found away from her. There’s an excruciating tension in wondering whether the fragile peace will all fall apart, as it so often does. No wonder filmmakers return to this particular rich well so often. Whether or not they’ve lived it, as Shults has, they aren’t just getting the benefit of one story, they’re getting the benefit of decades of pain, power, and expectations for how this type of cinematic narrative plays out.