MOVIES | IN THEATERS NOW

Sundance: “FAIRYLAND”

Sundance 2023 / Premieres Selection

Andrew Durham’s debut feature “Fairyland” is an emotionally-rich character piece with an acute sense of time and place.

Adapted by Durham from Alysia Abbott’s book “Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father,” Scoot McNairy is Steve Abbott, a writer and widower who, after the death of his wife, moves with his young daughter Alysia (Emilia Jones) to San Francisco in the seventies.

Living in a shared house in the Haight-Ashbury district, the abode is populated with an array of good people living their best life and young Alysia becomes part of their close knit, free-thinking world.

Alysia begins to understand that her dad likes men, as he begins a relationship with Eddie (Cody Fern). After that pairing runs its course, Steve doesn’t feel the need to hide who he is, dating openly, rightfully feeling empowered in the San Francisco free love scene.

Alysia’s grandmother (Geena Davis, with not enough to do) isn’t happy that her granddaughter is being raised in this environment, she is homophobic, as her character reflects the views of so many of her generation and their puritanical thinking.

While Davis is fine and the character is important, there isn’t enough time spent on her to allow any real insight into the woman.

The way Steve is raising Alysia opens her eyes to the freedom to be who you want to be. Her father is teaching her an independence that will fuel her spirit as she gets older. Does he make mistakes? Of course, parenting isn’t easy, and no one is perfect, but Steve loves his daughter dearly and he does the best he can.

As Alysia gets older, the film moves into the eighties, with Emilia Jones stepping into the role. Jones has great skill as an actress, which she first proved to Sundance audiences with her lead performance on 2021’s “CODA.”

As the teenage Alysia, Jones fully sells the frustrations of a daughter whose dad who is steeped in activism and always involved in something. For Alysia, sometimes it would be nice to just be a teenager.

Director Durham understands the importance of the film’s dramatic narrative by assuring every event is seen through Alysia’s eyes. Everything we learn comes from her overhearing conversations or experiencing something real.

Steve doesn’t want to hide from his daughter. It is important for him to be seen as who he is and for his daughter to live in the experiences of the time, observing and learning with an open mind. These are the moments that will shape her as a young woman.

The film gets the seventies and eighties vibe right. Cinematographer Greta Zozula stays on two shots, staying close and using low angles to capture the intimacy.

The latter-half of the film delves in the AIDS crisis and how it affects her father’s work and Alysia’s understanding of the closeness within the gay community.

One of the—if not the—film’s most compelling moments is when Alysia finds an article written by her father entitled “There Goes the Neighborhood.” As she opens the pages, she sees the unbelievable number of men listed alongside their photos. These are men who have died of the disease, Alysia comes to terms with the power of it all.

During the film’s final act, the moments between McNairy and Jones are some of the most authentically tender ones that I have seen on film in some time.

Scott becomes a symbol of so many who were filled with such life but were destroyed by the disease while the government ignored it.

It is in the peace of Scott knowing he has given his heart to his daughter that plays a big part in his ability to take all the tragedy in his life with dignity.

Writer-director Durham cared for his own gay father who was dying of AIDS. His insight and understanding of Alysia’s struggles give the film a profound authenticity.

McNairy and Jones do the finest work of their respective careers. The two actors share different levels of their character’s’ vulnerabilities, making the relationship between father and daughter honest and complex.

Steve makes the best life he can for his daughter. The two share that life for a long time. By the end, it is Alysia who must make the best life for her father, while she still has him.

Understanding comes with heartbreak and loss, but love endures, and memories are eternal.

“Fairyland” honors the closeness between a father and his daughter with grace and heart and, most important, truth.

The 2023 Sundance Festival takes place January 19-29.