Trey Edward Shults's Krisha is a masterpiece in miniature. It brings together the best, most heartbreaking aspects of the work of Tennessee Williams and John Cassavetes into a film that feels like it could have been made only in in the modern era. It is also incredibly difficult to watch, a panic attack of a film that bears more trigger warnings than Lars von Trier can shake a stick at. It is terrifyingly believable.
Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) arrives at her sister's home in Austin on Thanksgiving Day, ready to make a turkey for her sprawling extended family. It's apparent that she's been out-of-pocket for a while, because people are both happy to see her and behaving like a bomb defusal squad. Her son, Trey (Shults), strides into the frame, and Krisha regards him in such a way that we already know what's going on here: she screwed up, bad, and she wants to make amends. We spend 80 minutes with Krisha's family on this one special day. It feels like watching someone try to put out a fire with gasoline.
Krisha is an addict and her presence sets her family on edge. She bristles at their attempts to handle her with kid gloves, painfully aware that they barely trust her not to explode at any moment. She does an admirable job of keeping it together, although she is jumpy at sudden noises and seems cowed by the sheer amount of people in the room. It's clear that she's been on her own for a while and that she scarcely knows her kin, all of whom feel like they've got her completely figured out. If you felt like a rat in a cage, you'd feel rattled, too.
Shults's visceral approach - all closeups, nonlinear editing (also by Shults), and evocative swish-pans - shove you into Krisha's brittle mindset, and it's not a place you want to be. To say that Drew Daniels's cinematography is too close for comfort is to put it mildly. Whether you like it or not, you can't help but sympathize with this damaged, guilt-wracked woman, because all she wants to do is make up for lost time. Her stiff and awkward relationship with her son, who was effectively raised by his aunt, is evidence enough that there's no fixing their botched history. As an addict who is on the wagon, Krisha has convinced herself that she has come far enough that she believes she can do anything. This is her fatal error, because non-addicts cannot understand the sheer effort and time required to push away the temptation of their addiction. Krisha doesn't realize that, having abandoned her family, her family has irrevocably abandoned her.
It's this show of humanity on Shults's part that makes Krisha bearable. If all the film accomplished was to illustrate the (self-imposed) humiliation of a sick person, then it would be only exploitation, regardless of how well made it is. I don't care much for extra-textual details when it comes to reviewing a film, but there is no way that Shults himself is unfamiliar with this subject. The bulk of the characters, after all, are named after their actors, many of whom are the actual relations of Fairchild herself. In this way, the film almost feels like an exorcism, in which Krisha's metaphorical demons are given free rein to run rampant over their victims. The fact that this is Shults's feature debut makes the film all the more impressive, in the same way that a stellar debut hip-hop album shows how long it has been stirring in the artist's mind.
Krisha is the opposite of escapism: we all have families and none of them are perfect, so to see this movie is to come to terms with your own domestic baggage. It is lean and mean, but neither does it ever tell you what to think. We are not here to judge Krisha, only to hope for the best. The fact that we don't get her best, but possibly her worst, is merely a reflection of how life goes. It's up to you whether you find this to be nihilistic or truthful.