The Sundance entry, Fairyland, is a compelling, if 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: Fairyland was one of the most ambitious movies to play this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s a well-acted adaptation from the memoir by Alysia Abbot, but it was the movie that made it clear to me how much the indie film scene has changed. A decade ago, a star-driven historical drama that was based on a best seller would have received a large budget and support from a mini-major like Focus or Searchlight. Andrew Durham, a first-time director, has to create a family epic that spans a decade on a small budget in the new micro-budget era. Durham must rely on copious stock footage to recreate 1970s/80s San Francisco. The result is that Fairyland 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. This is a rare role for the character actor and it’s often overlooked. One hopes Hollywood notices. This is not an easy role for him. He’s a well-meaning man, but he’s also self-absorbed, to the point where his daughter, Alysia is left to take care of herself while he explores 1970s San Francisco. He is a wannabe author who uses family tragedy to create his material, without thinking about what it might do for his daughter. McNairy still makes him palatable and 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. Her limited screen time is probably the culprit. She appears in only half of the movie (Nessa Douglasherty plays her in half). Alysia is the main focus of the movie, with her semester abroad in France, and her relationship with a dreamy Frenchman taking up most of the time. Interesting characters such as Cody Fern and Adam Lambert, Steve’s love interests, disappear without explanation. Geena Davis’s role as Alysia’s disapproving, but ultimately supportive grandmother feels too short. 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 Fairyland 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.