There are few films I see where afterward I am both aching to talk about it and finding myself unable to find the words to do so.  Krisha, by first-time director Trey Edward Shults, is one of those films.  I finished watching it a little more than a half hour ago and feel like I need time to unpack the film, but I don’t want to lose its immediate effect so I apologize in advance for what is sure to be an awful lot of stream of consciousness in the next couple of paragraphs.

Krisha stars Krisha Fairchild, a troubled and broken woman who returns to her family after ten years to celebrate Thanksgiving.  The circumstances of Krisha’s troubled past aren’t spelled out for the audience other than some form of addiction and the fact that her sister and brother-in-law raised her son Trey (played by Shults) who will be entering his last semester of college in the winter.  Krisha could not be more fragile as she maneuvers around her large and boisterous (read: normal) family, who tentatively embrace her back into the fold but keep themselves at arms length.  As the day(s? I think it’s one day but that’s a little unclear) wears on Krisha’s tenuous grasp on “normalcy” and propriety gradually slips and she spirals into a very dark place as she finds it harder and harder to face her past and her demons alone.

Krisha is a complete knockout of a film, in that it really smacks you across the face – and I could not have loved it more.  Shults frames the film with a close up of Krisha that means something so different at the end than the beginning, and is really an unsettling way to begin the film.  In its relatively short run time (about 85 minutes) it provides a tremendous amount of tension and story.  And oh, the story… Shults, who also wrote the film, doesn’t give us a straight forward narrative.  He unravels the story organically through a number of conversations, a picture on the wall, an overheard sentence coming from another room that isn’t part of our central focus at the moment.  I can’t think of a better word to describe it than exquisite.  Viewer beware:  If you want your story handed to you on a silver platter, Krisha’s not the film for you.  So much is left up to the audience to interpret, and sometimes it’s up in the air whether it’s actually happening.  Conversations can start out genial and breezy, and later in the film when we go back to the same conversation the tenor has completely changed and it’s unclear which part of the conversation we’re witnessing at that point, or if it’s what actually happened rather than what we saw before.  Sound confusing?  It kind of is, and it’s a better film for it.

Another huge component of the film is Shults’s use of music in Krisha.  The soundtrack is wildly varied and almost always present in some form, and other than a Nina Simone song and a lullaby sung by one of the cast members is a meandering instrumental that ranges from at times jarring electronica to almost tribal drum beats.  Whatever the occasion, the music was disconcerting at some times, but soon becomes an increasingly effective tension-builder.

The cast of Krisha is also unique.  Fairchild is outstanding/brilliant/choose your own effusive adjective as the lead, and takes the audience through her emotions as jarringly as she feels them.  She is so broken, yet tries so hard to cling to what she believes is the approved version of “normal” that it’s hard not to feel her pain regardless of what we do or don’t know about her history and even her current circumstance.  This really is a tour de force performance that’s up there with Gena Rowlands in any of Cassavetes’s films (though A Woman Under the Influence comes to mind first) yet with more subtlety.  Simply sublime.  In addition to Shults (who frankly, was probably the most wooden actor on the set) the rest of the cast was largely made up of actual family members, including Fairchild’s siblings, with only a few professional actors filled in the cast.  I learned this after the film, and it made complete sense because there is such a natural feel to the family scenes: multiple conversations in the same room, college-aged kids sparring like they’re 8 years old, groups breaking off to play a game or watch a football game.

Krisha succeeds on so many levels, and while I’d heard good things about it since it hit my radar several months ago it was so much more of everything than I expected.  For me, Krisha was near perfection, and as a debut work it shows that Trey Edward Shults is going to be someone to watch for in the future.  On the surface, the film’s premise is not a new one – a family gets together for the holidays and the black sheep (because there’s always a black sheep) stirs the pot and mayhem ensues.  Or substitute “holiday” for “wedding” and you can probably name three films off the top of your head.  But his command of helming a relatively small film with an excessively complicated and insular heroine while giving it a unique yet natural perspective is quite impressive.  (And allows me to forgive his acting.)

As much as I loved Krisha and would want to recommend it to as many people as possible, I know that it’s not a film for everyone.  It’s very dark – though I did chuckle a few times – with powerful and very real emotions just laid out there.  It’s a perfect example of why I love independent cinema and if you do end up watching it (or have seen it) tell me because I REALLY want to hear what someone else thinks about it!

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