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Every family has its black sheep, a fact made immeasurably more palpable during each and every holiday celebration or dreaded family reunion. Every hug (or handshake), every warm look (or lack thereof), each and every laugh (or sinister snicker) comes loaded with accidental intent, long-lingering feelings that peel back the jaded historicity of who we are: the stories that define us and the rumors that plague us. In the immobile stasis of familial arbitrations, lines are always drawn in the sand, alliances cropping up and breaking down like an especially dramatic episode of Survivor. In Krisha, we find a hunched carpetbagger of a woman reentering the wary arms of the same family that turned its back on her years ago, unable to put up with one more manic fit brought on by her unwavering addiction.

Family pariah Krisha implodes when she returns home for Thanksgiving for the first time in a decade. Welcomed back into the extended family after an alleged run of much-needed sobriety, Krisha is greeted with warm smiles and affectionate hugs but it doesn’t take long to realize the façade at play. Director Trey Edward Shults hides clues for the stormy reckoning at bay – Krisha’s mysteriously severed finger wrapped in ACE bandage, a lock-box brimming with a small pharmacy of dubiously packaged pills, a family member’s almost eerie confession about hating the unreasonably-sized pack of pooches at his house –  but none so overpoweringly spellbinding  as the score from Brian McOmber, which is nothing short of a nonstop auditory invasion. Even the recurring motif of a turkey basting in the oven elicits hair-pulling tension when paired with McOmber’s aggressive soundscape. Shrill violins assault the eardrums, working in discord to create a violent cacophony of strings and  syncopated percussion that assures disorientation.

KrishaSSR5Auditory discombobulation is far from the only tool that Shults shoulders in his armada of filmmaking tricks. From a directorial point of view, Krisha weaves from long, fly-on-the-wall takes to grossly intimate steadicam shots –  one of which is fixed tight on Krisha’s face as she spins in circles, creating a cheap carnival ride effect sure to make stomachs swirl and heads spin. But each framing device, camera placement option and lighting choice contributes to a greater sense of whole, in which the director is telling the story of Krisha’s internal shifts in a vibrantly visual way. The fact that Krisha marks Shults’  directorial debut is smashing. Even more impressive, Shults operated under such a tight-belt budget that he was forced to recruit family members as cast and crew members, many of whom didn’t have a single IMDb credit to their name.

Though some might suspect the tale of Krisha to be based on the life of its lead actress, considering that many of the cast members, including Krisha, use their own names, Shults suggests that the woeful tale of holiday relapse was an amalgamation of prior family events not connected to any of the performers here. The two “inspirations” come from Shults’ father, who Shults had retreated entirely from five years prior to his death because of repeat issues with alcoholism and addiction,  and a cousin who experienced a forceful relapse the family reunion just a month before overdosing.

KrishaSSR4It’s almost ironic then that the remnants of the Shults family came together to build such a thing of remarkable beauty and unassuming artistry in Krisha. Building genuine characters that sparkle with authenticity, Schults pours detail into the barbed character relations at Krisha’s center. In doing so, each member of the family warrants their own unique approach to the challenge of their fly-by-night family member. Her sister Robyn (Schultz’ real life mother Robyn Fairchild) wants to rebuild a foundation of trust and love, willing to put her neck on the line and vouch for Krisha, while her varied catalog of college-aged nieces and nephews generally approach their “touched” Aunt with casual, warm indifference (but indifference nonetheless.) Doyle is happy to abscond outdoors to smoke butts and air caustic grievances – as Doyle, Bill Wise is responsible for the film’s few moments of comic relief –  but his loyalty proves fickle, even when his thick sarcasm remains.

But none seem less pleased by Krisha’s presence than Trey (played by director Trey Shults), who upon first seeing her offers a shallow hug and downcast glances, extending empty, monosyllabic responses to Krisha’s many pressing questions. There’s history here that isn’t immediately accounted for and though it’s not quite packed with the wool-from-eyes mystery material that Shults intends to wield it as, their sour relationship is the heart and soul of the film’s heartbreaking prowess.KrishaSSR2Krisha crumbles without a strong central performance and thankfully up-to-now underutilized performer Krisha Fairchild (Schultz’ real life aunt) lays everything on the line, offering a blasphemously excellent (blasphemous in regard to Fairchild’s otherwise saggy resume) central turn. Fairchild makes up for a lifetime of thankless roles (Fairchild’s credits include infrequent made-for-TV movies and various indie video game voice work) as the titular misanthropic addict, showcasing the kind of bespoke  performance that makes it impossible to see anyone else doing the role justice. Think Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler or Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream. The comparisons aren’t far off.

Fairchild unpacks a haunting portrait of unhinged mania, fueled by an increasingly potent drug cocktail, dislodging ghosts of the past like an Indiana Jones-sized boulder rolling through a three bedroom house.  Her invitation is a trial run gone legless and watching her flap helplessly, a sturgeon plucked from the stream, is a brass knuckle gut punch. Coming increasingly unhinged, Krisha cannot forego metamorphosis a la pharmaceuticals, a Kafkaesque transformation that similarly has her family racing around trying to squash her like a bug.

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Those who found astringent brilliance in Alex Ross’ Queen of Earth or Darren Aronofsky’s aforementioned Requiem for a Dream will discover a similar palette of pill-fueled feminine disintegration. In what may be a direct reference to the latter, Krisha even dons an ill-fitting red dress before curtain time. Schults depicts the monkey on Krisha’s back as a harrowing maw, a groping Voldemort face concealed by a knap of frazzled grey hairs, frantically pleading, “Feed me!” Every time Krisha checks in with herself, squirreled away in the bathroom, looking herself over in the mirror, popping just one more pill, the mask slips. All the while, Shults fosters a discordant sense that the walls are closing in, plowing past the barriers of intimacy and into the realm of unchecked voyeurism. The result is grippingly explosive, eliciting a tactile chill in its claustrophobic depiction of metaphoric death spiral by unencumbered substance abuse.

CONCLUSION: Backed by a spine-tingling score, ‘Krisha’ is a powerful journey through the dingy bowels of addiction and family secrets. Krisha Fairchild is masterful in a breakout role for the ages just as first-time director Trey Edwards Shults proves himself a powerful emerging voice with a debut that won’t soon be forgotten.

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