Every family has a basket case, the relative who won’t or can’t behave. If you think yours doesn’t, it’s probably you.
“Krisha,” a startling, jagged work of suburban Cassavetes, dramatizes this idea. Based on family lore and starring close relatives of writer-director Trey Edward Shults, the movie is told resolutely from the point-of-view of its own basket case, Krisha (Krisha Fairchild), a 60-something prodigal daughter arriving at her sister’s Thanksgiving with breath held and fingers crossed. Among the gaggle of cousins, nephews, and in-laws, there’s a grown son (played by the filmmaker) whom she hasn’t seen in years. She has left much unspecified damage in her wake. “Calm down . . .” Krisha mutters as she knocks on the door.
Shults has filmed in his own childhood home, with his mother playing his aunt and his aunt playing his mother; the title character (pronounced “Kreesha”) is based on a different aunt who is no longer with us. It all sounds . . . incestuous. Yet “Krisha” sucks you into its gradually worsening family dynamic with a confidence of style and a maturity of observation that is remarkable in a home-brewed Kickstarter movie. At times you laugh in horror. At other times you shrink from the screen. There are truths here.
The opening scene is a long tracking shot that follows the inwardly quaking heroine from her car into the family great room, relatives coming at her in over-modulated chaos, the mood happy and fragile. Shults wants to keep us as off-balance as Krisha is, and a subsequent single-take sequence is a marvel of dissonance, the camera swinging in circles to take in the men erupting in shouts over a football game on TV, sister Robyn (Robyn Fairchild) as she issues turkey-cooking instructions, casual appearances by a dyspeptic brother-in-law (Bill Wise) and a young niece (Olivia Grace Applegate) carrying the family’s first grandchild, Tupperware lids clattering to the ground — all as Bill McOmber’s inventive, intentionally intrusive score bleeps and boops on the soundtrack. By the end of the scene, we’re wrecks too, and, unlike Krisha, we don’t have a stash of meds, prescribed and otherwise, in a lock-box upstairs.
That musical score keeps us on our toes throughout, erupting in dark glissandi and pained chord clusters; it breaks the rule that says movie music should be supportive and unnoticed even as it gives voice to the broken pieces of glass rolling around in Krisha’s head. The same goes for Drew Daniels’s expressionistic camerawork; because Krisha’s eyes are looking everywhere at once — especially toward the exits — so does the movie. At times, we simply gaze into her face as if she were staring into a mirror, taking stock, wondering what to do next, wondering if it should be loud. Her son can’t look her in the eye. Her boyfriend isn’t returning her calls. That bottle of red she smuggled into the house is calling her name.
Shults, who has crewed on Terrence Malick movies and the upcoming “Midnight Special” while directing his own short films, is no neophyte but a filmmaking natural who is drawn to the mysteries of our closest familial bonds — how they endure, why they fray. “Krisha” never makes excuses for its heroine but, instead, looks deep into her distress. While many of the relatives keep their distance (the ones with the least acting ability, I’m guessing), the brother-in-law played by Wise, a professional seen in “Boyhood” and elsewhere, becomes the film’s cruel Greek chorus, reminding Krisha in no uncertain terms, “You are heartbreak incarnate, honey. You are a leaver. You are an abandoneer.” Which is all the proof a woman needs when she can’t forgive herself.
Krisha Fairchild had an acting career in her youth as well, before calling it quits; she still has the goods, plus there’s the research advantage, if you want to call it that. There’s no vanity to the performance other than the shredded vanity to which her character clings. Late in “Krisha,” the psychodrama knives come out as Robyn — who really shouldn’t have entrusted her sister with that turkey — at last articulates the volcanic emotions that come with caring, deeply, for the family screw-up. Around then, the film reaches a point of no return, which may be its most upsetting aspect. We prefer that our screened entertainments resolve. Life has a tendency to not.
This may be why Trey Edward Shults makes movies.
Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. Starring Krisha Fairchild, Shults, Robyn Fairchild, Bill Wise. At Kendall Square. 83 minutes. R (language, substance abuse, some sexual content).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.