For his feature debut, director/writer Andrew Durham has taken us to somewhere we know, or at least feel we do – San Francisco in the 70s and 80s. Yet that familiarity is far from a disadvantage in Fairyland as, against a backdrop which has been lovingly chronicled elsewhere, we’re welcomed into a personal and deeply affecting story.
Based on Alysia Abbott’s memoir of the same name, it traces her life with her gay father after the death of her mother. At the funeral, Alysia (Nessa Dougherty) is too young to grasp the hostility between her father (Scoot McNairy) and grandmother (Geena Davis), but it’s part of the reason for him whisking her away to start a new life in San Francisco. Growing up among some colourful characters – a drug dealer and a guy who just lives on the couch, among others – she doesn’t always get the guidance she needs from her father as he goes through a succession of lovers while trying to find himself. As a student in the 80s, Alysia (now played by Emilia Jones) becomes increasingly conscious of his shortcomings as a parent, but the impact of AIDS has become a frighteningly personal reality and the relationship between the two shifts radically as she has to put her future on hold and give him priority – something she feels he rarely did for her.
In a film of two halves, Alysia’s earlier years are spent in a large apartment which feels like it’s been transposed from Tales Of The City’s Barbery Lane. There’s no Mrs Madrigal keeping a maternal eye on everybody, but the semi-communal living, the relaxed atmosphere, the drugs and the ahead-of-their-time attitudes are all there. This time, however, they’re seen through the eyes of a precocious child, one who doesn’t think twice about asking personal questions when she discovers one of the residents in the bath. Such innocent humour gives the film a definite charm and, when she does spend time with her father, the atmosphere is warm. But her solitude when he’s out – which is often – and she’s watching horror movies well beyond her tender years, is very different.
Despite the thread of sadness that runs through the narrative, there’s a definite sense of Alysia’s nostalgia for the past. It’s at its most evident in the visuals, shot on film and giving them the slightly grainy look of the old photographs and newspapers that make regular appearances. It’s put to especially good use in the 70s half of the film, where shots of the characters are merged into newsreel footage and it’s nigh-on seamless. That misty eyed view of the past perhaps goes a little too far in depicting San Francisco as constantly bathed in sunshine – its infamous fog is nowhere to be seen – but that’s memory for you.
But who’s the real adult here? Ultimately, it’s a role that’s almost forced upon Alysia. She’s been given too much independence as a child, which gives her the strength she needs for the second half of the film and Emilia Jones, Sundance’s darling from CODA, returns in a role where, once again, she’s challenges her upbringing and struggles to find a place for herself. As daughter and father, she and McNairy make a strong pairing as we follow their individual journeys of self-discovery in an engaging, endearing film with all the heart you could hope for. The inevitability about the later stages means it could have benefited from some sharper editing, but as a document of a relationship and an era, it’s beautifully observed and re-created.
Drama | Sundance London, 7 and 8 July 2023 | Cert: tbc | Dir: Andrew Durham | Emilia Jones, Scoot McNairy, Geena Davis, Cody Fern, Adam Lambert, Nessa Dougherty.