We gave it a B+
The opening shot of the harrowing new indie drama Krisha is a close-up on the face of a late-middle-aged woman staring in the mirror. The film’s director, Trey Edward Shults (making a very promising feature debut), holds the frame on her for an uncomfortably long time. It’s hard to read her expression. Is she scared…or is she someone to be feared? What’s her deal? We have no idea, but right off the bat, we want to know. The woman behind the inscrutable pose is played by Krisha Fairchild, and over the next 83 minutes of white-knuckle family dysfunction, she will put herself, her estranged loved ones, and the audience through the wringer.
After Shults’ lingering, static, mysterious opening scene, Krisha is behind the wheel of her car searching for the well-appointed Austin, Texas, home of her sister. When she arrives at the door, we quickly suss out that it’s Thanksgiving. The house is a swirling buzz of several generations of Krisha’s relatives and in-laws preparing for the holiday. But there’s something about her presence there that feels unwanted. Just beneath the surface there’s a feeling that her connection with these people is tenuous, shaky. The din of loud conversation, barking dogs, and frantic preparation seems to overwhelm her. And the camera moves and darts around to show us how unsettling all of this activity is for her. She seems like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown – something that’s only supported by the locked-up stash of pills she keeps secretly dipping into in her bedroom.
Shults builds a creeping sense of dread with the same anxious naturalism that the late indie auteur John Cassavetes brought to such films as A Woman Under the Influence. And there’s plenty in Fairlchild’s performance that will remind viewers of Gena Rowland’s untethered performance in that 1975 classic. It slowly becomes clear that Krisha is a recovering alcoholic who’s trying to responsibly twelve-step her way back into her son, Shults’, life. But one look at her twitchy, easily flustered mannerisms, and it’s clear that her grasp on sobriety is tenuous at best. As the pressure of the holiday starts to make her unravel, we know that things will eventually get messy. The only question is: how messy?
Krisha is a tightly coiled spring of a movie full of hope, trust, resentment, and shame. And its snowballing sense of impending doom is masterfully engineered. We’ve all seen plenty of quirky family dramas set during the holidays, but Shults eschews the familiar cutesy Hollywood clichés in his tense character study. It’s a small, modest film, but its impact is anything but. By the end, when we see Krisha’s scary-or-just-scared face again in close-up, the mystery as to who this woman has been answered. Well, stort of. Krisha’s story may be over. But a whole new chapter of her fragile existence is just beginning. B+