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'Krisha' Offers A Vivid, Unique Portrait Of Family Dysfunction


This is FRESH AIR. The micro-budget indie drama "Krisha" won the narrative feature jury and audience award at the 2015 South by Southwest film festival and has already brought considerable attention to its first-time filmmaker, Houston-born writer-director Trey Edward Shults. He used members of his own family, among them his aunt, Krisha Fairchild, who plays the film's protagonist. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.


DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Let me first tell you about a remarkable extended shot in Trey Edward Shult's debut "Krisha." It's a showstopper of bad vibes, a psycho symphony that bumps the film out of kitchen sink realism, even though it's set in a kitchen and near a sink.

Krisha's the name of the title character, played by a former and now back with a vengeance actress named Krisha Fairchild, who happens to be the director's aunt. The character is a bedraggled woman in her 60s who arrives for Thanksgiving at her sister's spacious home.

She's eager to prove to all the relatives she's hurt or abandoned that she's different now, clean, sober, responsible. She's eager to take her place in the family again - too eager maybe. She's asked to make the turkey herself for more than 20 people, and it's a monster.

As she stands in the open kitchen arranging her utensils, conversing with her sister and niece, the sound of that conversation is overwhelmed by the surrounding noise of chairs and a door and people cheering a football game. What a score by Brian McOmber. Here, those bubble noises sound like percolations from an old Maxwell House coffee commercial while the discordant plinks unnerve you.


EDELSTEIN: And Krisha seems to move at a slower speed than the others. You watch her nod and try to find her center, but you know her center cannot hold. The character's inner chaos is projected onto the external world, a defining quality of expressionism.

Shults is not yet 30 and this is his first feature, but he has a gift, perhaps even a genius, for translating thought and emotion into camera moves and composition. Even this home for Thanksgiving psychodrama, a genre all to itself, feels like something you've never seen before. Most of the actors are non-actors, members of Shults' family, including his mother, a psychologist in real life, and they're amazingly vivid. And Shults himself plays a young family member who's particularly traumatized for reasons that will later be clear.

In interviews, he's said his aunt's real life is not the basis for her character. But he must have discerned in her something of the movie's Krisha - restlessness perhaps, a resistance to settling down. With her shapeless clothing and unruly long gray hair, she's an earth mother who's lost all connection to the earth.

She finds a moment of peace as she smokes a cigarette in the backyard amid her sister's many dogs. But beside her is her dryly cruel brother-in-law Doyle, played by superb actor named Bill Wise, who gazes on her with quiet contempt, the contempt of a wealthy man who's held it together for a sister-in-law who's never fought successfully against her own unruly impulses.


BILL WISE: (As Doyle) What have you been doing?

KRISHA FAIRCHILD: (As Krisha) I have been living a life in which I have tried to become a better human being. And that's as much as I'm interested in saying to you about it.

WISE: (As Doyle) This is a place of healing, right here, right here it is, Krisha. This is it. You can say anything anytime anywhere. You let me know. When it's all said and done, I'm married to your [expletive] sister in there and I'm family.

FAIRCHILD: (As Krisha) Thank you. And I appreciate the offer and as soon as I have anything really incredibly revealing that I want to say, I will definitely come right to you and say it, dude.

WISE: (As Doyle) Well, I'll tell you what, you can write it down and I'll read it later

FAIRCHILD: (As Krisha) OK.


WISE: (As Doyle) Shut up.

FAIRCHILD: (As Krisha) Very subtle.

WISE: (As Doyle) Not bad.

EDELSTEIN: Some critics have compared "Krisha" to the excruciatingly intimate, semi-improvised films of John Cassavetes, and there's some truth there. But you also see the influence of the dreamy Terrence Malick on whose films Shults has worked. Really, though, there's nothing like "Krisha."

One scene even features a person with real dementia, Shults' grandmother, Billie Fairchild, who plays the character Krisha's mother and was apparently aware she was acting in a film. It never feels like exploitation. In one scene, she gazes on her daughters and quietly alludes to her difficulties with her own mother, and you have a sudden glimpse of an endless line of parents who either weren't there enough or there too much.

What's to come is predictably disaster, but Shults doesn't shoot the hellish meltdown like someone controlling the action, only observing it - helplessly. He has mercy for Krisha, even as she's screwing up her own and others' lives. The movie marks the arrival of a truly adventurous, humanist filmmaker.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On Monday's show...


REGINA KING: (As Terri LaCroix) My son has been exonerated in connection with this assault.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Terri...

KING: (As Terri LaCroix) Hold on. Kevin has been cleared.

BIANCULLI: Actress Regina King. She co-starred in "American Crime" on ABC this season and last and was in HBO's "The Leftovers." She also played a detective in the TV cop drama "Southland" and was in the films "Boyz N The Hood," "Jerry Maguire" and "Ray." King started acting as a kid and was in the TV sitcom "227." Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.