From the first scene of “Krisha,” writer and director Trey Edward Shults puts us off balance, and for the next 83 minutes he keeps us that way, almost daring us to look away.
We won’t. That image, a close-up of the title character’s face, a ring of wild gray hair surrounding it, is framed just a tad too tight, making it stunning and uncomfortable. What is her story? We are about to find out.
Shults’ film takes a classic, almost cliched setup — prodigal family member returns home for the holidays — and turns it on its ear. While there are echoes of other filmmakers here (most notably John Cassavetes and a little Terrence Malick, his sometime boss, for good measure), “Krisha” is wholly original, a terrific feature debut.
Krisha (Krisha Fairchild, Shults’ real-life aunt) is returning to her family for the first time in 10 years, a length of time she has spent in addiction and recovery, and we know from the start that it is a shaky sort of peace she has made with herself. For one thing, she arrives for Thanksgiving dinner … at the wrong house.
Once she has figured that out, she enters the home of her sister Robyn (Robyn Fairchild, Shults’ real-life mother) and finds the place teeming with pre-Thanksgiving bustle. There is football on television, food prep in the kitchen and everyone is running around, either with purpose or not. If you’ve ever had the experience of someone walking into a room and immediately changing the energy, you know what happens here. Shults captures the phenomenon perfectly; it’s as strongly felt as when Paul McCartney wanders into rehearsal in “Let It Be” and the rest of the Beatles immediately sigh, tighten up and get back to work.
No one treats Krisha more warily than her son Trey (Shults). He squirms in his own skin when she’s around, making her eagerness to reconnect all the sadder.
On the homemaker front, Krisha has announced she will cook the turkey, which is roughly the size and shape of a Volkswagen Beetle. (It’s a big crowd.) To paraphrase Chekhov, if you’re going to introduce an emotionally unstable woman cooking a giant turkey in the first act. …
But the turkey is the least of Krisha’s problems. Addiction would be at the top of that list, which seems lengthy. The surroundings she finds herself in don’t help. Nor does her brother-in-law Doyle (Bill Wise, fantastic), who is alternately supportive as she talks about her search to find some sort of inner peace and witheringly acidic. Their chats on the back porch, as what seems like a pack of dogs bay in the background (and sometimes foreground), are terrifically entertaining and cringe-worthy.
The stash she has tucked away in her bag can’t be much help, either.
As it’s probably obvious, given the makeup of the cast, this is an intensely personal work for Shults. (He also casts his grandmother, who is suffering from dementia in both the film and in real life, as well as other relatives.) He has said the real Krisha is nothing like this, and Fairchild is a professional actor. But the attention to even the smallest details are telling. A film doesn’t have to be taken directly from life to be personal, but life would certainly seem to have informed Shults’ choices.
His confidence as a director is strong, as he is able to make the camera see what Krisha sees — and what we see by extension. They aren’t always pretty sights. “Krisha” is a unique film, honest and searing. Hers is not a head you want to be stuck in and, at times, the pressure Shults builds is almost unbearable. But it’s worth it.
A24 presents a film written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. Running time: 82 minutes. Rated R (for language, substance abuse and some sexual content). Opens Friday at AMC 600 N. Michigan.