Krisha hasn’t seen her family, including her son, Trey, for more than ten years. Sober but still shaky, she decides to accept her sister’s invitation for Thanksgiving dinner. Dragging her worn out suitcase, she initially goes to the wrong house in the upscale development. When she finally gets it right, she doesn’t recognize the young man who opens the door or, for that matter, most of the people gathered inside. While everyone seems happy to see her, there’s an undercurrent of tension even alarm. We don’t yet know Krisha’s story – indeed we never learn what happened to her in the decade she was gone – but we know that she’s a ticking time bomb.
There’s a poignant story behind this film. Trey Edward Shults’s cousin, Nica, died of a drug overdose in 2012. Two months earlier, the family had come together for what would be remembered as a painful reunion. In an interview in Rolling Stone Magazine, Shults said about Nica, a longtime addict, “I didn’t want to look at her or talk to her.” The reunion, he said, “felt like a slow-motion train wreck.” As a writer and director, Shults decided to tackle the issue of addiction by making a film using his family’s story. The title character is played by Trey’s aunt, Krisha Fairchild, a professional actress whose work has mostly consisted of voice-over work. Because she won’t be familiar to many moviegoers, she virtually disappears into the role. And she’s incredibly brave, allowing the camera to zoom in on her face, showing every sag and wrinkle.
Trey, wearing a third creative hat, plays Krisha’s son, while his mother, Robyn (in real life a psychologist), plays Krisha’s sister, and his grandmother, Billie, plays Krisha’s mother. The film was shot in Robyn’s house over nine days. What perhaps started out as a home movie went on to win the Grand Jury Prize for Narrative Feature at the South by Southwest Film Festival and won Trey a two-picture deal at A24.
There’s no preaching about addiction in the film. Rather we witness how Krisha’s addiction has affected her and various family members. Trey, who was raised by his aunt, is not ready to forgive his mother. There’s no getting back all those years that have been lost. When Krisha forces a conversation with him, giving him career advice, he reacts angrily. At that point, she realizes she’s operating with an out-dated playbook. She no longer knows her son or his aspirations.
While Robyn encouraged Krisha to come for the holiday, she’s spent years raising Trey and also taking care of their aging mother. When Billie, in a wheelchair, sees Krisha, it’s not clear she remembers her daughter, a painful moment for both. The younger family members, after greeting Krisha, have little interaction with her, perhaps reflecting the way Trey felt with Nica.
When Krisha joins her brother-in-law Doyle (Bill Wise) on the patio, both of them smoking, the conversation starts out friendly, even funny. But then he begins to probe about the last ten years, the jabs getting more aggressive. “I have been living a life where I’ve been trying to be a better human being,” she tells him. “And that’s as much as I want to say about it.” He lashes back: “You are heartbreak incarnate. You are an abandoner.”
With her wild gray hair and bohemian dress, Krisha looks like an aging hippie who never left the sixties behind. She has a deformed finger (in real life, the result of trying to break up a dog fight), and on a chain around her neck she wears a key which opens a metal box, the top proclaiming, “Keep Out.” Inside there are bottles and bottles of pills. Periodically, she retreats to the bathroom to shallow several. We briefly wonder if she’s sick, even dying.
Hoping to keep Krisha busy, Robyn tasks her with preparing and roasting the turkey. Even after the bird is safely in the oven, Krisha obsesses over the cooking, going into a panic when she can’t find the timer that she has set. She tries calling someone named Richard several times, leaving messages that become increasing desperate. Even though she’s surrounded by family, Krisha’s still isolated. In that dark moment, when she begins to teeter on the wagon, she can’t reach out for help. When she takes a bottle of wine into the bathroom, attacking the cork with a scissors, we know that the bomb will soon go off. When the explosion comes, it’s devastating.
Trey set out to make a film that would open a dialogue on addiction. He’s done just that.
Krisha opens nationwide March 25, 2016.