Fairy Land (Sundance) Review

The Sundance entry, Fairy Land, is a compelling, iif too abbreviated, adaptation of the best selling memoir by Alysia Abbott .

PLOT: After his wife dies tragically, Steve (Scoot McNairy) uproots his young daughter, Alysia, and moves to San Francisco, where he begins to explore his repressed homosexuality amid the growing gay rights movement of the 70s. Years later, in the 80s, as the AIDS crisis decimates the community, a now-grown Alysia (Emilia Jones) returns home to care for his dying father.

REVIEW: Fairy Land was one of the most ambitious movies to play this year’s Sundance Film Festival. While it’s a well-acted adaptation of the memoir by Alysia Abbott, it was the movie that made me notice how much the indie scene has changed. A decade or so ago, a star-driven historical drama based on a best-selling book would have gotten a healthy budget and perhaps backing from a mini-major such as Searchlight or Focus. In the new, micro-budget era, first-time director Andrew Durham has had to craft a decade-spanning family epic on what must have been a tiny budget. Durham has to rely on copious amounts of stock footage to recreate the 1970s/80s San Francisco. The result is that Fairly Land has more of a shaggy dog quality than you’d expect, given the pedigree (coming from producer Sofia Coppoia and American Zoetrope).

As it is, Durham and his producers should get plenty of credit for still being able to craft an entertaining father-daughter story, even if, at under two hours, it feels too short. It might have fared better as a limited series, with some of the most intriguing characters vanishing without much explanation, making the whole thing feel abbreviated.

Luckily, Durham has an ace up his sleeve with leading man Scoot McNairy. Frequently underrated, this is a rare lead role for the erstwhile character actor, and he’s so good that one hopes Hollywood sits up and takes notice. He doesn’t have an easy part here. As Steve, he’s well-meaning but also self-absorbed to the point that his daughter, Alysia, is left to essentially fend for herself from a young age while he explores 1970s San Francisco. A wannabe author, he mines family tragedy for his material without considering what it might do to his daughter. Still, McNairy makes him not only palatable but likable. Once the worst happens and he becomes an AIDS patient, your heart breaks for him, and McNairy imbues the character with a lot of soul.

By contrast, Jones, despite delivering brilliant performances in this year’s Cat Person (read my Sundance review) and CODA, isn’t able to inhabit her role the way McNairy does. The culprit is likely her limited screen time, with her only in about half the movie (Nessa Dougherty plays her in the first half of the movie). If anything, too much of the focus is on Alysia, with her semester abroad in France and her relationship with a dreamy Frenchman taking up a chunk of the running time. Meanwhile, interesting characters like Cody Fern and Adam Lambert as Steve’s various love interests, vanish without any explanation. Geena Davis’ role as Alysia’s disapproving (but ultimately supportive) grandmother also feels too abbreviated. Fairy Land also suffers from a few scenes that are a little too on the nose, such as a reunion Alysia has with Maria Baklava’s Paulette, who starts the movie as a drug dealer but eventually becomes an AIDS advocate.

While Fairy Land isn’t as compelling an examination of the gay San Francisco culture of the seventies as Gus Van Sant’s Milk or as thought-provoking a depiction of the AIDS crisis as The Normal Heart, Fairy Land is still effective and entertaining. McNairy’s powerhouse performance makes it a must-see, even if the film could have benefited from more time to tell its story and a heftier, less compromised budget.


Originally published at www.joblo.com

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