A review of Trey Shults’ stunning “Krisha”

Speaking at the recently concluded Ivy Film Festival, Trey Edward Shults—the 26-year-old debutant director-writer-editor of “Krisha”—expressed his fascination with the creative problem-solving ethos of the “Dogme 95” movement. Started in 1995 by Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, this movement aspired to a pure cinema built on the “traditional values of story, acting, and theme and excluding the use of elaborate special effects or technology” by imposing an eclectic set of restrictions on filmmaking. These included shooting exclusively on location without any external props and using only sync sound, natural lighting, and handheld cinematography. “Krisha” is, by no means, a Dogme film (as Shults was quick to clarify), but like many young, aspiring filmmakers lacking wealth and pedigree, Shults made the film under his own set of Dogme-like restrictions, not imposed by some idiosyncratic vision of what true cinema should be, but by sheer circumstances: a micro-budget of $100,000, a non-professional cast consisting of family members, a family house doubling as a set, and a nine-day shoot for a 90 minute movie.

As it turns out, “Krisha” is, simply put, a masterpiece. It is a work of astounding formal finesse and emotional complexity all its own, but the story of its journey, from home-movie-like origins to the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at SXSW, official selection at Cannes, and nearly unanimous critical praise—the wet dream of any 20-something film student—lends it a hallowed air. It is a Hollywood rarity: fulfilled ambition.

The film opens with 60-year-old Krisha (played by Krisha Fairchild, Shults’ aunt) as she makes her way across a lawn to her sister’s house, where the family is gathered for Thanksgiving. She is welcomed by a coterie of sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces, and nephews with cautious, measured warmth. Greetings are tinged with the unmistakable undercurrent of old wounds and unsaid things. The plot slowly begins to trickle in, through glances and passing comments: We piece together that Krisha has been absent from the family for years and is now recovering from a long history of substance abuse. Shults has a knack for allowing the story to tell itself through small and sometimes unexplained details: Krisha’s bandaged, half-missing finger that no one talks about, her repeatedly unanswered calls to someone, her strained and pained exchanges with Trey (Shults himself), one of the boys in the family.

Shults isn’t an absolute newcomer to Hollywood. He got his foot into the industry as an intern on the Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” and has worked on two more of the director’s films. So, it is unsurprising that “Krisha” comes off as the work of someone very literate about cinema. One can see traces of Shults’ self-proclaimed influences—which include Paul Thomas Anderson, John Cassavetes, and Malick and his frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki—in the film, but it is ultimately the work of a fiercely original auteur who makes his presence felt in every carefully crafted shot. He performs acrobatics with the film’s form: The dynamic camerawork follows Krisha closely, tracking, twisting, and teetering as she struggles to moor herself; the editing is an expressionist montage that jumps back, forth, and across characters, spaces, and chronology; the eclectic, frenetic score by Brian McOmber suffuses the film with a veneer of anxiety that crescendoes to aural chaos at moments of climax.

The direction is unabashedly formalist, but never overwrought or indulgent. Each stylistic choice is evocative, carefully deepening and complicating viewers’ understanding of the film, its characters, and their relationships. Viewing the film is like watching Shults conduct an orchestra of visuals, sound, and editing, varying and permuting them with a mathematical precision to produce just the right mood, just the right tone, just the right combination of suspense, anxiety and despair. In a brilliant sequence inspired by “Punch Drunk Love,” Krisha stands in the kitchen, preparing the turkey that she has insisted on cooking herself. Shults puts the spectator right inside Krisha’s head: The noise of family activity surrounding her—people zigzagging across the space, dogs barking, the sounds of sports on TV and of men cheering raucously, utensils clinking and scraping—is magnified to grotesque levels and mixed in with hair-raising, bubbling sounds. The camera pans right and left dizzyingly as she attempts to orient herself, like a jagged piece trying to fit into the family puzzle.

It also helps that this stylization is balanced by deeply honest, organic performances, a remarkable feat by the more inexperienced actors in the film. According to Shults, the making of the film was a collaborative effort between the cast and crew, and it pays off: The improvised moments shine through, especially a conversation both hilarious and caustic between Krisha and her brazen brother-in-law. This organic quality also derives from the blurring of fact and fiction within the film. The interactions between Krisha and her sister Robyn (Robyn Fairchild), who is her sister as well as Shults’ mother in real life, are charged with an ineffable, intense tenderness that can only come from a shared history.

Krisha Fairchild, so far a small-time actress with a background mostly in voice-work, is the true revelation and lynchpin of the film. It begins and ends with close-ups of her wizened face, anguished but unreadable, and between these two poles is a mercurial graph of emotion that she embodies with a controlled fluidity: She flits from ferocity to vulnerability to wreckage with the ease of a veteran actor. “You are heartbreak incarnate,” her brother-in-law says to her with cruel honesty, and one cannot help but believe him. It is also extremely refreshing to see a film spearheaded by an older, silver-haired woman who does not fit the classic Hollywood mold—the type, as Jordan Hoffman at The Guardian puts it, that “we see in life but never on film.”

Krisha’s commanding and layered performance adds a sense of depth that occasionally runs thin in the film. Despite its stylistic sophistication, “Krisha” sometimes lacks subtext; it offers a keenly observed portrait of an addict unraveling but stops short of saying something about it. As a result, the film’s explosive denouement, though expertly choreographed, feels a little anti-climactic: all show and little tell. However, this is a minor quibble with a film that is not just an artistic tour-de-force, but also provides much-needed affirmation for all of us college-age film-geeks that good cinema can flourish even with limited resources, as long as you have talent, commitment … and a preternaturally gifted family.

First published in Post- Magazine on April 21, 2016