Film festivals are places where filmmakers can break out, and careers can be launched. Such was the case last year, when Emilia Jones headed the cast of CODA, a small, sweet film that was embraced at Sundance Film Festival and rode a 13-month wave all the way to winning Best Picture at the Oscars. CODA was a breakout for writer/director Sian Heder, actor Troy Kotsur (who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) and for Jones, the 20-year-old British actress who has returned to Sundance again this year in two films, each building CODA-like buzz of their own.
In Fairyland, Jones plays the teenage version of Alysia Abbott, the daughter of bisexual poet Steve Abbott, played by Scott McNairy, who moves his daughter to San Francisco after the death of her mother in a car crash when she is just six. Newcomer Nessa Dougherty plays young Alysia in the first part of the film, which is a pretty standard coming-of-age story that revels in the San Francisco bohemia of the ‘70s, as seen through the eyes of a young girl. Although Steve tries his best to be a good father to Alysia, she builds some resentment for her father’s unorthodox parenting skills. When the cruel reality of the AIDS crisis hits home in the ‘80s, Alysia comes home to care for her father, and the two find a renewed connection.
Based on Abbott’s memoir, Fairyland is written and directed by Andrew Durham, whom producer Sofia Coppola picked to make his directorial debut with this film. It’s obvious that Durham has quite a bit of affection for the story and for the characters, so much so that the film is never really able to wander far from being loving nostalgia, which dulls the edges a bit. The portrayal of life in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the ‘70s plays to every cliché, but is still effective in setting the scene for a wide-eyed young girl who is taking it all in and using it to form a foundation of her life and her future art.
Where the film leaves more to be desired is in the actual relationship between Steve and Alysia, which is crafted from moments, as if ticking off the boxes of standard father-daughter fare. What’s missing is the feeling of a genuine life being lived, the drastic ups and downs and emotional upheavals that a young girl growing up without a mother might endure. Instead, there are simple snapshots of memories, a pastiche displaying a frayed relationship, barely enough for the audience to hold onto. Still, Durham’s script sprinkles just enough magical moments throughout to lift Fairyland and make the film work on an emotional level, despite its inability to rise above its standard, predictable narrative.
Fairyland’s investment in its characters is what ultimately saves it, and it is the performances, particularly from McNairy and Jones, that give it the resonance it salvages. McNairy, a journeyman character actor who has consistently delivered great performances in a wide range of movies and television shows from Halt and Catch Fire to Argo, delivers the performance of his career in a role that challenges preconceived notions of fatherhood, gayness and self-esteem. He finds a nuanced texture to his performance that is delicate and quiet, resisting the urge to be big and showy, instead simply living in the role, inviting the audience in, charming us, and breaking our hearts. McNairy finds all the warmth in Steve, yet mines his darkness as well, his casual obliviousness, selfishness and insecurity. It is the kind of performance that might easily go unnoticed, but it is monumentally moving in all the right ways.
Jones is strong as well, carrying the second half of the film, resisting the opportunity to play the pouting, resentful daughter, instead bringing out Alysia’s confusion and compassion with tenderness and strength. Far less impressive is singer Adam Lambert’s acting debut, as he plays Charlie, one of Steve’s lovers, in an overly showy characterization that seems out of place among the rest of the ensemble. Cody Fern, however, makes the most of a couple of scenes as Steve’s roommate, and Geena Davis provides the perfect anchor as Alysia’s protective grandmother. Dougherty is fantastic in her film debut, yet another young actor whose future is certainly bright.
While Fairyland may not be another CODA, there is no denying that the tradition of an Emilia Jones film winning hearts at Sundance is very much alive. It’s just too bad Fairyland isn’t as complete a film as it could have been to make a more significant impact.
Fairyland is screening in the Premieres section of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute | Kalman Muller