Krisha (2015, dir. Trey Edward Shults)
Krisha is a story that could have easily fallen into cliche and melodrama, but the deft hand of first-time feature film director Trey Edward Shults elevates this story and these characters into something transcendent and horrifically beautiful. Krisha is a woman in her early 60s, reunited with her estranged family after an undetermined number of years. It’s Thanksgiving, so her sister Robyn has the house full of siblings, spouses, and children. A niece has just become a new mother, and the baby is a the center of everyone’s attention. Later in the day, even the matriarch is brought over from her nursing home. As most people can relate, there is a tension underlying the joyful reunions happening, particularly on the part of Krisha. She has suffered from substance abuse, and individual family members are not sure of what condition she is in at the moment.
Krisha’s arrival sets the stage for the tone of the film. The camera hovers above and floats down, following her as she goes to the wrong house and then drags her suitcase across the lawn to the right one. In both the aesthetics and details of the performance we are being informed about who this person is. Krisha is overly cheerful but a mess in her action, disorganized and overwhelmed. It’s explained she lives by herself, but it’s more than that. Her sister Robyn raised her son, Trey and the circumstances are never brought to light. It is apparently tied to Krisha’s substance abuse, though.
We’ve all likely met Krisha, either as a member of our family or a passing acquaintance. She just can’t seem to get her life in order, was probably labeled a “free spirit” when she was younger but now it’s worn on the people around her. Some small gestures and details develop her character without the film ever becoming expository. When she is finally reunited with her mother, the elder woman has a strange aside about her mother. She states that the great-grandmother was a gorgeous woman who always seemed ashamed of where she was from. This causes Krisha to step back in shock, and the implication is that this story may be very similar to Krisha’s experience and what led her away from her family.
Shults is powerfully skilled for such a young filmmaker, and it is evident he has influences from the American canon. The tension built with a wandering camera and taught percussion feels at home next to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. The naturalistic exchanges between family members and the overlapping family conversations is very much a stroke of Robert Altman across the screen. Star Krisha Fairchild is undoubtedly making reference to the great Gena Rowlands (A Woman Under the Influence, Gloria) in her performance. This film is a beautiful homage to the great directors of the American independent cinema.
One aspect of the film that may not be readily apparent while watching it is the personal connection it has to the director and actors. This is Shults’ real family. Krisha is his aunt, Robyn is his mom, the home is his mother’s house. In interviews, he’s explained that the central character is not based on any one person but a combination of troubled family members. His father was estranged from the family and died as a result of substance abuse a few years ago. The explosive incidents in the film are drawn from a cousin’s outburst at a family gathering, a cousin who ended their life months later.
Krisha is a tragic and powerful film. It is one of those works of film that embeds itself under your skin. Shults’ next work It Comes At Night looks to be a powerful exploration of human relationships in the face of horror. I am excited to see Shults expand his craft and continue developing this talent of building tension and atmosphere.