“Them cars are getting faster and them wings are getting weaker”
While it may not be autobiographical in a plot sense, no one can watch Trey Edward Shults‘ debut Krisha without a full recognition of its honesty and authenticity as far as the emotional turmoil running through the writer/director’s mind. I say this more than just as a result of acknowledging how he shot the film in his parents’ home with a cast almost exclusively made up of family and friends either. Whether these actors are seasoned or amateur and the locale steeped in memory or a nondescript studio back-lot, the chaos that ensues is depicted without a shred of artifice. These are characters struggling to hold onto normalcy in the face of extraordinary circumstances. This is a family balanced after ten years of pain watching their wound reopen.
The generation born from parents of the “Baby Boom” is rife with “black sheep” going beyond dismissals of mere eccentricity. This is what happens when you’re dealing with four to six aunts and uncles on both sides of the family tree: numbers dictating someone in the mix will fall prey to losing him/herself in the carnage of adulthood responsibility. Sometimes this person is pushed away and sometimes he/she leaves. A pure love remains, but it’s easier and oftentimes healthier to let it mature with ample distance between warring factions. Only time has the power to heal and no two cases are completely alike. Acceptance is different than forgiveness. Contrition is different than desire. Just because one side is ready to make amends doesn’t mean the other can comply.
This brings us to Krisha (Krisha Fairchild, Shults’ real-life aunt). We’re introduced to her sixty-year old exiting her car (with dress caught in door). She’s talking to herself and obviously flustered either as a point of routine or because the day brings an opportunity she’s nervous to take. We soon learn it’s been a decade since she’s seen anyone in her family, the division stemming from drug abuse that got bad enough for her sister Robyn (Robyn Fairchild) to take her son Trey (Shults) away. The hope is that the moment to rekindle their relationship has arrived. Krisha is now sober (her drugs currently legal and prescribed). Trey has grown to being a semester away from graduation. And Grandma Gigi (Billie Fairchild) doesn’t have too many Thanksgivings left.
Anyone who’s experienced a similar situation knows these things don’t solve themselves overnight. They know sobriety is one step of many—the first of many. A clear head doesn’t entirely remove the corruption of narcissistic tendencies, the impatience of waiting for vindication, or the wounds her abandonment (no matter how necessary) caused those affected by it. Ten years was an eternity forcing Trey to reform his familial dynamic in a way that rendered Robyn and his uncle (Chris Doubek‘s Dr. Becker) Mom and Dad with Krisha becoming a distant nightmare whose return might be better-suited towards taking him a step back than helping everyone else move forward. For Krisha this is a chance at redemption. For the rest it’s a cautious rehearsal to decide whether redemption is possible.
As such, we receive from Shults a series of interactions that can be described as nothing less than awkward in the most real way possible. This isn’t a primetime sitcom where adults know best and children open up for hugs. This is life’s messiness incarnate: its misguided pleas for forgiveness, harsh reality checks in lieu of hollow platitudes, and realization that every relationship involves two sides possessed with equal importance. There’s no room to just forgive and forget because that’s what the other needs. Trey isn’t supposed to tell Krisha everything is going to be okay because she needs him to stay sane. What about his needs? What about his feelings? When is she going to acknowledge her estrangement is no one’s fault but her own?
That doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to empathize with her, though. In large part due to Fairchild’s performance, Krisha exists in a realm of self-loathing, painful uncertainty, and extreme psychological discomfort. She’s taking a chance coming here and you have to commend her for the attempt even though she’s not ready. Her reaction to the circus unfolding around her as she accustoms herself with the kitchen is proof of PTSD levels of anxiety. We’re talking about a woman who’s spent years repairing personal damage in isolation with a select few confidants providing strength now being willingly thrown into a fire of virtual strangers. The visual and aural stimuli, the candidly blunt conversation with brother-in-law Doyle (Bill Wise), and unfortunate resistance from Trey backs her against the proverbial wall.
Shults takes her down a recovering addict checklist until the end is reached to leave her on an island alone. Relapse is inevitable, the claustrophobic sense of it alluded to at the start with her teary-eyed but frozen portrait shown in full-frame before the screen expands wide upon her arrival at Robyn’s home. The film risks an unknown period of recovery on a single day of cold turkey defiance. There’s no easing in or easing out, just a shotgun blast of nostalgia, betrayal, love, and hate distilled together into a cacophonous moment of vertigo. The only thing that can quiet her mind is that which she cannot take. And taking it anyway makes her the pariah everyone fears—evidence that we should take nothing for granted—once more.
There’s a raw energy to the performances, the extended takes by cinematographer Drew Daniels giving shape to Krisha’s internal spiraling, Brian McOmber‘s score, and Shults’ refusal to subvert honesty for a false notion of happily ever after. Even the decision to provide two versions of a climactic encounter between Krisha and Robyn—one through a filter of humility and hopeful understanding if not blind forgiveness opposite another through adrenaline’s emotion-fueled usurpation of reason and nuance (which is real is up to you if either truly is)—comes in the form of two worst case scenario outcomes. The rapid-fire cuts of montage juxtaposing past joy and present disappointment depicts Krisha’s demons consuming her in real time as we process the sad recognition that there may be no coming back.
This inevitable descent is marked by an ultra-widescreen shift of frame as Nina Simone‘s “Just in Time” plays. The scene is similar to that in Shults’ short film of the same name from two years earlier—a tornado scooping Krisha up to watch her fall into an abyss of darkness. It’s an unforgettable sequence abruptly culminating into the full-frame aspect ratio again, the rest of the film shot as though through her untrustworthy tunnel vision rather than the optimistic landscape of calm normalcy she simply cannot exist within. Everyone onscreen means well and everyone tries his/her hardest to make it work, but reality often proves growth comes at a pace sluggish enough to render a decade into a snap of the fingers. Hope turns sour in an instant.
courtesy of A24