PARK CITY – When a toddler age Alysia Abbott moved to San Francisco with her father Steve in 1973 her life took a decidedly different direction. She was raised in what today would still be considered unconventional circumstances (no, it wasn’t in a commune). And like almost any father-daughter relationship that can lead to resentment and misunderstanding. She chronicled that journey in her novel, “Fairland: A Memoir of My Father,” which has been adapted into a new film, “Fairyland” which debuted at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival this morning.
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A passion project for writer and director Andrew Durham, the film begins with Alysia (initially young actor Nessa Dougherty, seemingly a bit older than Abbott was in real life) heading west after her mother’s tragic death in a car accident. Her father (Scoot McNairy, impressively committed) is looking to escape the midwestern life he’d been confined by and explore his gay identity in the sexually liberated ‘70s. They move into a large apartment they share with a collection of colorful characters seemingly right out of “Tales of the City” including part-time drug dealer Paulette (Maria Bakalova), the gender-liberated Johnny (Ryan Thurston), and much to Steve’s delight, the hunky couch crasher, Eddie Body (Cody Fern). For Steve, life is a blast. Even if he’s barely surviving as a freelance writer. For young Alysia, the fun only lasts so long as she begins to comprehend her father’s relationships with other men.
Despite her young age, Durham smartly keeps Alysia’s perspective in the forefront as she experiences house parties, pride parades, and, yes, her father’s multiple escapades. He also tries to pack a lot in this portion of the film with historical anecdotes about Anita Bryant and Harvey Milk, among others, which, in theory, are meant to inform Steve’s political writing, but only distract from the proceedings. When Steve asks an elementary-age Alysia to take the city bus home because of a work conflict (he wants her to learn to be independent), things go predictably wrong. You also begin to wonder if Steve will get any sort of redemption as a father as the film begins to lose any minor momentum it had in a series of his parental mistakes.
A creative spark occurs after a time jump to the early to mid-’80s where a 15-year-old Alysia (now played by a fantastic Emilia Jones) cannot get over the embarrassment of her dad. It’s not just because he’s her father, almost every teenager will experience that, but the constant gay jokes from her peers (even in San Francisco) convince her to intentionally keeps that side of him a secret from her friends. She’s had a lot of gay men in her life and, frankly, she’s rebelling against it. It doesn’t help that the one boy she has a crush on at the local record store also plays on the other team. And despite growing up in a progressive political environment, the allure of that era’s Yuppie culture is tugging at her. Yes, you could wear all black, be a fan of Depeche Mode, and wish your father made more money to make life easier.
If it’s the ‘80s and this subject matter, the AIDS crisis will eventually come to the forefront. While experiencing a college semester abroad in France, Steve sends Alysia a letter asking her to return home. Unlike her French boyfriend, she knows what is ahead of her and will finally understand what her father endured raising her all those years ago.
Disappointingly, and despite the best intentions, Durham’s overwritten script diminishes some potentially truly moving moments over the course of the picture. There is simply too much clunky exposition. It’s almost as though Durham doesn’t trust the audience to decipher what is occurring (a strange irony considering both Steve and Alysia were accomplished writers). The first act of the film is also jarringly edited with Durham and his team finally hitting a narrative rhythm after Jones’ arrival about halfway through the film. And, unfortunately, the performances of the “CODA” star and McNairy have to carry the film through some very rough stretches. Sometimes, that’s simply not enough. Even if you’re close to shedding a tear or two. [C+]
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