The Films of 2016: Krisha

The title character of Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha is the type of person who seems to live in a constant state of apology.  A recovering alcoholic and “abandoneer,” in the words of her brother-in-law, she shows up on her sister’s doorstep for Thanksgiving after a long period of estrangement.  In spite of what look like sincere attempts to repair her relationships with various members of the family—including her college-age son Trey, a budding filmmaker, played by Shults—Krisha’s presence causes tensions to ripple throughout the house.  After simmering all day like pots on the stove, they explode with quietly devastating force. 

This is Shults’ first feature, and it’s a promising debut.  To judge from his bro-dude looks, one wouldn’t think him capable of handling material this emotionally raw, nor of commanding such strong performances from his actors, most of whom are his real family members playing versions of themselves (Krisha is played by Krisha Fairchild, Shults’ aunt).  In the middle scenes of the film, as preparations for dinner get underway and Krisha’s anxiety mounts, Shults sustains a tone of percolating dread.  Even as nothing really seems to be wrong—vegetables get chopped in the kitchen, boys horse around in the backyard, babies cry, dogs bark—Shults makes the very air feel like it’s spinning out of control (sometimes quite literally, through the use of dizzying 360-degree panning shots).  It feels like a Robert Altman movie on uppers—keyed up and edgy rather than mellow.  Like its heroine, Krisha slowly careens toward a nervous breakdown.  Damaged, needy, and desperate for connection, Krisha is so compellingly drawn that her breakdown feels as crushing to us as it does for her and her family. 

I’m not entirely sure that Krisha adds up to very much; Shults doesn’t really know where to take this material, so the film simply stops rather than ending.  It feels like a staged event rather than a narrative.  Other sequences, some of which are filmed in different aspect ratios, come off looking like pieces of Shults’ promo reel.  I’m impressed, though, by Shults’ willingness to take on such intimate material, as well as by his delicate command of tone: there are moments in this film as squirmingly awkward as any you’ve likely experienced at your own family gatherings.  To see a young filmmaker who is actually interested in people—their rhythms of speech, their movements, their bodies, the tangled wires of their emotions—is heartening.  Shults has the potential to become a great humanist filmmaker in the tradition of Cassavetes and Demme.  Let’s just hope the superhero-movie industry doesn’t get its hands on him first.      

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