By Jake Coyle
AP Film Writer
NEW YORK — Aspiring filmmakers take note: Nine days of shooting at his mother’s Montgomery, Texas, home, a minuscule budget of $100,000 and a cast led by his aunt were enough for writer-director Trey Edward Shults to make one of the more devastatingly empathetic portraits of addiction you’re likely to see.
Shults’ bravura debut film, “Krisha,” has been an unlikely sensation on the festival circuit, where it won the grand prize at last year’s South By Southwest Film Festival. In February, it won the John Cassavetes prize at the Independent Film Spirit Awards, an honor for best film made with fewer than $500,000.
Yet what makes “Krisha,” which opens Friday, powerful isn’t its humble, homespun production, but rather its intensely intimate drama, inspired by the wrenching family history that played out within the same walls as its setting, and was lived through by many of the very people seen on screen.
Krisha Fairchild, Shults’ aunt, stars as the title character: a wayward, former alcoholic who comes to the suburban home of her sister (played by Shults’ mother, Robyn Fairchild) for Thanksgiving. The scene is festive and teaming, but for Krisha the atmosphere is one of dread.
The film, discordantly scored and dizzyingly shot, captures the small slights and deep wounds of the troubled Krisha as she tries to re-enter family life and keep her demons at bay. We see the judgmental glances that greet her and follow her retreats to the upstairs bathroom.
“I’m not the Krisha of the family but I want to try to understand her and have empathy for her,” Shults said in a recent interview.
Shults was drawing from a real past. After years of sobriety, a cousin of his died of an overdose in 2011, shortly after relapsing during a holiday family reunion. Krisha and Robyn Fairchild played significant roles in trying to help their niece and her children.
“I was just terrified of being around someone in that situation,” says Shults, remembering the holiday meltdown. “It felt like a slow-motion train wreck. I didn’t want to do anything except sit there nervously. Two months later, she overdosed and passed away. I think I started processing that with the script.”
Shults and other family members, distraught, would often replay in their minds the struggles that preceded the death.
“So when he presented us with this script that was so emphatic to the person that we loved, we all came to feel that this might be the way to help other people,” says Fairchild, who acted in her youth. “It was an immediate rush of: ‘Yes, Trey. Yes. You got it.'”
The character of Krisha is a composite. Shults’ father was also an alcoholic who fell off the wagon, leading Shults to keep him out of his life for years before visiting him on his deathbed.
Behind the turmoil and tragedy of “Krisha” is the hard question: How is it best to love a perpetually out-of-control family member?
“I think about it all the time,” says Shults. “The two big people in our family who inspired this character are passed away now. I think about if I did the right stuff with my dad in cutting him off.”
Making the film, which also stars Shults and his 92-year-old grandmother, was excruciating but cathartic.
“We did the good juju because the bad juju had been in every room of our houses for so long,” says Fairchild, whose blistering, bare performance commands the film. “We were all holding each other a lot during this.”
There were many “foot rubs and temple rubs,” Fairchild adds. “A lot of the most difficult scenes we did after everybody else had been sent home for the day.”
Shults’ next film pulls from his fraught relationship with his father; Shults wrote the script a month after he passed. The indie distributor A24, which is releasing “Krisha,” is signed on for that film, too.
Shults promises it will be a slightly “more legit” production, though he’s happy if “Krisha” inspires introspection in not just families but would-be filmmakers.
“Our limitations helped make this special,” says Shults. “Everyone has a unique life. Everyone has something unique around them. Maybe that doesn’t mean cast your aunt and mom and grandma in the lead roles in your movie, but who knows. Get creative and let the limits spur that creativity.”