THE STORY – Following the sudden and tragic death of her mother, young Alysia is uprooted by her father Steve in hopes of restarting his life. They move to 1970s San Francisco where Steve develops his poetic and personal writing and begins to openly date men. Steve’s bohemian lifestyle clashes with the expectations of parenthood from both the outside world and Alysia herself, who occasionally wishes for less of the independence her father gives her. As Alysia grows into a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, their bonds and duty to each other are tested in painful and sudden ways.
THE CAST – Emilia Jones, Scoot McNairy, Geena Davis, Cody Fern, Adam Lambert & Maria Bakalova
THE TEAM – Andrew Durham (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 114 Minutes
When it comes to nostalgia, Sofia Coppola reigns supreme. Her work often takes the essence of memories and melancholy and melds them into a hazy, lens-flare-filled dream. Her latest project, “Fairyland,” is blissfully familiar territory for the auteur. Produced by Coppola and written and directed by Andrew Durham, this is a coming-of-age story about people doing their best under unimaginable circumstances.
Based on Alysia Abbott’s memoir “Fairyland: A Memoir of my Father,” things kick off on an immediately heartbreaking note: upon finding out that his wife died in a car accident, Steve (Scoot McNairy) makes the decision to pack up and move to San Francisco with his five-year-old daughter Alysia (Nessa Dougherty) in tow. Right off the bat, the father-daughter duo embraces the free spirit lifestyle of the 1970s, living in a commune among Steve’s male lovers. It’s an unstable environment, but here we see it through a rose-tinted lens; when Alysia opens the door to her father’s room and finds him in bed with another man, she simply crawls into bed next to him without a second thought. It’s a touching moment in a movie bursting with sensitivity and compassion.
As “Fairyland” movies into the next decade of their lives, that’s where we see the most significant shift. It’s now the 80s, Alysia (now played by the wonderful Emilia Jones) is in high school, and her acceptance is festering into resentment. We enter this point in the film with an immediate cloud over our heads; it’s not raining yet, but it’s the 80s – a clear warning sign if there ever was one. It’s at this point that the visual language of the film starts to change – to its own detriment. The first half of the film, shot on 16mm, is lovely to look at and perfectly captures this child’s surreal point of view. As Alysia gets more mature and sees her life and her father through a more complicated lens, the cinematography switches to digital. It’s a clever move narratively, but more than anything, it highlights the optimistic film we’ve lost, and we miss it dearly.
As we enter the inevitably tragic last act, this is when Jones and McNairy genuinely shine. “Fairyland” relies heavily on the two leads to communicate so many things that can’t be spoken: loneliness, disappointment, abandonment, and above all: love. So much of what makes this film work is how we perceive Steve. Is he guilty of raising his daughter in an unsuitable environment? Yes. Does he love his daughter with all of his heart? Absolutely. McNairy’s Steve is a warm enigma throughout; selfish yet loving, present yet lost in his own world of self-discovery.
“Fairyland” is bound to be compared to another recent father-daughter film, the critically acclaimed “Aftersun.” The close release of both films is likely to be a hindrance to “Fairyland.” Both films are centered around revisiting old memories from a grown-up’s perspective, and both films will break your heart. And while “Fairyland” unfortunately doesn’t meet the astounding highs of “Aftersun” (a nearly impossible task, it’s worth noting), there’s more than enough on display here to set it apart. With its vivid San Francisco setting and tender look at an important part of history, “Fairyland” is a rich viewing experience with the personal touch of a filmmaker who shares these characters’ unique world view.