The fifth annual Sun Valley Film Festival runs March 2-March 6 in Ketchum, Idaho, featuring over 60 narrative films and documentaries, as well as special guests Oliver Stone, Mark Duplass, Bruce Dern and Amy Smart, and musical guests The Joy Formidable and Thunderpussy. Films are shown at local venues including the Sun Valley Opera House, Magic Lantern Cinemas, and NexStage Theatre in a celebration of film and storytelling.
Written and Directed by Trey Edward Shults
One of the most frustrating kinds of films to watch are those that contain all the elements to become a much better one, yet consistently refuses to do so. Krisha, which won the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award at the SXSW 2015 Festival, boasts extraordinary cinematography and a tour-de-force performance from lead actress Krisha Fairchild – and very little else.
Krisha tracks the return of a woman to the family fold after a five-year absence owing to alcohol and addiction. Over the course of one Thanksgiving day, Krisha attempts to reunite in particular with her aging mother and her distant son, and grows increasingly distraught as her attempts fail.
Writer-director Trey Edward Shults based the characters loosely on a combination of members of his own family (though not his real-life aunt, Fairchild herself), as well as addicts he knew. The film is both ambitious and intimate in scope, with a large cast of characters set entirely in the confines of the sprawling family home. It deftly captures the ebb and flow and raucous, chaotic-yet-ordered waves of family life among a large group of people. The conversations and interactions between close-knit family members are immediately familiar and recognizable to anyone who’s spent time at a family home over holidays. The camera is constantly in motion: long tracking shots, zooming in and out, shifting from close-up shots of a face to wide-angle of the entire family, hovering above the scene for a bird’s-eye view. This gives the film a heightened sense of scope and stakes, transforming each scene from an ordinary family interaction to something that hints at epic drama.
The camera’s treatment of Krisha in particular promises evil and tragedy; specific shots of her throughout the film find her lurking in shadowed corners and on stairs, eavesdropping on and watching her extended family. Close-ups show her face half-hidden in shadow, the half that is visible caught in a ferocious, cunning grimace. The camerawork, in its treatment of both the family as a whole and Krisha in particular, combines with jangling, tense music to create an ever-growing sense of unease and menace.
This promise is never delivered on. It perhaps doesn’t help that Fairchild’s craggy face is a canvas tailor-made for epic Shakespearean drama; her glower promises caverns of emotion, malice, craftiness. But this is in the end a fairly mundane family drama, in which a series of events that are familiar from other films, which many of us have experienced in our own lives as well, transpire. The atmospheric directing wants to mine more from Krisha’s inevitable meltdown and outburst than the writing earns; if you examine the plot alone, there is very little unique, and certainly nothing risky present here. The drama constantly plays with a sense of danger – and then nothing happens. Somewhat terrible emotional events arise, but they effect, in the end, really only Krisha and one other person, not the family as a whole, who are never given personal relationships with Krisha. The climax is expected and signaled, and deeply underwhelming, playing out on an almost purely emotional landscape rather than the physical danger and menace the film has built toward.
Inspired cinematography and music turn out to be only window dressing on a fairly standard family drama. Had the writing been as bold, and as risk-taking, as the camerawork, this would have been a powerhouse debut, one to remember. Shults should take note of Bong Joon-Ho’s work, in particular 2009’s Academy-Award nominated Mother, for a writer-director who draws on an aging actress’ chameleonic talents and ability to manifest menace to create tense domestic drama that explodes with a visceral, satisfying payoff.