Film Review: Krisha (★★★)

Krisha, based on the personal experiences of writer/director Trey Edward Schults, began its journey as a 15-minute short that premiered at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival and won the Special Jury Prize. This gave Schults the opportunity to expand his story and using the same cast of family members he adapted Krisha to an 80-minute feature that premiered one year later at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival taking away the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award double dip. Its festival run culminated in winning the John Cassavetes award at the Indie Spirits and acquisition by rising distributor A24, currently revelling in their 3 for 3 scorecard at the Oscars. Cassavetes is indeed a very apt point of comparison to start with Krisha.

The story itself is simple, but it’s the vision in capturing the tone that makes Krisha stand out. At its finest points of clarity, Krisha is filmic jazz. Schults’ own aunt Krisha Fairchild stars as the titular character – whose behaviour is based on Schults’ father – a rehabilitated alcoholic visiting her family for Thanksgiving after 10 years of estrangement and mistrust, including her son, played by Schults himself. Despite her pleading for justified forgiveness he can barely look her in the eye, effectively tuning her out. The desire to be accepted takes its toll and to take the edge off the rejection she divulges in alcohol to take the edge off, but she can’t hide her inebriation for long resulting in past demons coming to a fray.

While humble in budget constraints, the camerawork and back and forth editing are dizzying – almost Lubezki-esque style at times, with an unbroken and ambitious 7 minute opening shot (after the beginning image) and cramped darkened hallways you could mistake for Birdman‘s theater. Krisha is a domestic horror, much more efficiently so than last year’s Queen of Earth, filled with guttural tension set among its familial camaraderie with its high strung music and editing. This montage style can get tiring at first when it refuses to make things easy or spell things out. Relationships are buried in the subtext and it’s very voyeuristic yet lived in. Casting more family members than himself and Krisha, including his mother Robyn – playing his aunt who took him in – and his grandmother Billie, and set in his parents’ house, it has a home video quality, but that’s not to devalue where it’s at its most cinematic.

Like Xavier Dolan and Wes Anderson 2 years ago, Schults experiments with aspect ratios to put us in Krisha’s mindset. As she gets drunk, the film soothes into widescreen complete with therapeutic music, but as she wakes with a devastating hangover, the frame is cramped in 4:3, tighter than the first hour of the film. It demonstrates sobriety as endurance rather than a natural state. Even while it wallows in its sadness particularly in the muddled final five minutes, it balances its sympathies beautifully. It’s about the conditions of family love, made potent by the fact that the cast are actual family members, as they’re prepared to let Krisha go but not stop loving her, most powerfully so in a scene where Robyn has a firm and final talk with her in the film’s third act. While Krisha has indie trappings of its low budget such as a distant but deliberate sound design that will push away mainstream audiences, Trey Edward Schults is a promising voice to keep a firm eye on, even if his next venture is also autobiographical.