Trey Edward Shults’s debut feature “Krisha” is a raw, passion project about addiction and the damage it can inflict on a family. Based partly on Shults’s own turbulent family life, the film was made for around fifteen thousand dollars and shot in the director’s family home over a period of nine days. In addition, while Shults plays a supporting role in the film, his aunt Krisha Fairchild plays the titular protagonist, his mother Robyn Fairchild plays Krisha’s sister, and his own grandmother plays his grandma. In this regard “Krisha” quite literally a “home movie” (that went on to gain overwhelming critical acclaim at the 2015 South by Southwest film festival), giving it a layer of authenticity and intimacy it wouldn’t other wise have.
“Krisha” can be uncomfortable to watch and it certainly doesn’t build to a neat and happy conclusion, which is somewhat foreshadowed by the film’s ominous, surrealistic opening scene: a close up of a disheveled Krisha surrounded by black, staring intensely off into the distance, while Brian McOmber’s eerie and unnerving electronic score flairs up in the background. After that, we cut to a mundane residential neighborhood and watch as Krisha arrives at her sister’s (Robyn Fairchild) house for Thanksgiving. Krisha hasn’t seen anyone (her sister, her brother in law, her nieces and nephews or her grandma) in ten years due to drug/alcohol troubles and is hoping to make amends with everyone, especially her estranged son Trey (played by Shults himself).
At first things start out warm and peaceful—Krisha is welcomed with open arms and pleasantries are exchanged. Krisha even takes on the important job of cooking the turkey, showing initiative on her part to rejoin the familial circle. Yet, this familial tranquility is not meant to last; past demons are brought up and cracks begin to reappear in the foundation.
Ultimately, “Krisha” is less about substance abuse and relapse and more about the long term negative affects addiction can have on those around the abuser. Even after a period of ten years (which feels like a lifetime to me) internal wounds may still be fresh as and no matter how hard one might try in making amends they are still looked at as an outsider (a negative and destructive force) in the eyes of their loved ones. For Krisha, the obstacle isn’t necessarily drugs and alcohol but the pressure, the embarrassment and the terror of confronting the ones she loves.
Not exactly an uplifting picture but to his credit Shults’s doesn’t resort to any cheap melodrama or manipulation when dealing with the film’s big moments. Most of the time, he lets the tender, heartbreaking interactions between Krisha and her various family members unfold without any bells or whistles. On top of that, at a brisk eighty minutes, Shults keeps the film moving at a steady, unhurried pace. He’s not in a hurry to tell his deeply personal story; the transition from tranquility to chaos is gradual and organic as opposed to sudden and forced. And all of this is anchored by the sixty five year old Fairchild who gives a powerfully understated performance that draws both sympathy and frustration from the audience.
In terms of appearance, “Krisha” primarily uses a minimalistic Cinema Verite style, consisting of lengthy uninterrupted shots (that can sometimes last up to three minutes), allowing for maximum authenticity. During these scenes the camera is often at a distance, making the audience feel like visitor/voyeur and emphasizing the emotional and mental distance between Krisha and her family members as well. Along with the realist style are fast, trippy montages (that carry the same ominous, surrealistic tone found in the opening scene) interspersed throughout, intensifying as more familial turmoil is brought to the surface.
In the Cinema Verite style sequences the camera is usually still and only diegetic sound can be heard, signaling a sense of calm. In the montages, the camera is frantically gliding and zipping around the house and characters, with the electronic score becoming increasingly unhinged and intrusive, reflecting the internal tensions between Krisha and her family. While things may appear to be calm and tranquil on the surface, chaos and pressure is mounting just below, waiting to explode onto the surface. “Krisha” successfully blends the realist presentation of a John Cassavetes movie with the surrealistic style of Darren Aronofsky’s drug drama “Requiem for a Dream.”
In the end, it’s better to perhaps look at “Krisha” as a form of therapy for Shults and his family. Watching the film and reading interviews with him afterwards it’s clear he’s working through some deep seeded issues. And what better way to heal from family turmoil than to channel it into a creative endeavor? As is the case with most directorial debuts it’s a solid feature but doesn’t cut as deep as it should. Now, this is partly due to production constrictions—a micro budget and an extremely short amount of time to shoot. While the ending is intense and hallucinogenic, it’s also abrupt, leaving me somewhat unsatisfied. I’m not saying the movie needed to neatly resolve itself but it practically cuts off mid sentence, as if Shults ran out of time.
There are other issues. I wish Shults had fleshed out some of the other family members, particularly his own character Trey. Being Krisha’s son and the main person she’s trying to make amends with, he should have played a much larger role. Aside from an early conversation between him and Krisha, he stays curiously off to the side most of the time. Additionally, we’re given very little information in regards to Krisha’s time as an addict. While we’re clearly supposed to feel sympathy and pity towards Krisha, we’re also meant to sympathize with the family and be aware of all the damage Krisha caused them. Therefore, it would have been beneficial to give us some idea of what Krisha was like at her very worse, just so we can better see the situation from their point of view.
Despite these issues, “Krisha” is still a worthwhile and intimate feature, showing that Shults has potential to become a great filmmaker.