An autobiographical story of family dysfunction doubles as a modern indie-film masterpiece

Krisha Fairchild, the star of the indie drama 'Krisha.'

You've probably never encountered a one-woman car-wreck like Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) in a movie before; you may have seen her stirring up trouble at one of your own family gatherings, however, or if you're particularly unlucky, staring back at you in the mirror. A sixtysomething woman with a hippy-dippy look and a desperate air, the title character of writer-director Trey Edward Shults' mini-masterpiece telegraphs instability from the moment we see her shuffling up to a suburban house.

This black sheep hasn't seen her kin — or the college-age son (Shults) she left behind — in years, but an invite to Thanksgiving dinner is her chance to make up for long-term M.I.A. status. Those days of binge-drinking and demonic behavior are behind her, she promises. Everything will be perfect from now on. Still, as her brother-in-law reminds Krisha, "You are an abandoneer. You are heartbreak incarnate, lady." Disaster is just one dropped-on-the-floor turkey away.

Based on an amalgam of autobiographical elements, Shults' cathartic take on dysfunctional free spirits and the damage done feels like nothing less than a cinematic exorcism. The first-time director knows how to capture the chaos of holiday get-togethers and raucous revelry, but all the retro slow zooms, dread-inducing Steadicam-style shots and ominous droning on the soundtrack key viewers that this isn't a family drama so much as a domestic horror film — The Shining with metaphorical ghosts. (Massive kudos to cinematographer Drew Daniels for hijacking Kubrick's visual vocabulary as an effective vehicle for expression rather than just mindless fanboy gushery.) A history of emotional violence emerges in conversational bits and bitter glances, as this earth-child's shiny, happy facade starts to fade and she slowly goes into human-earthquake mode. Which brings us to the film's real MVP.

It's impossible to overstate how important — or how jaw-droppingly incredible — Fairchild's performance is in terms of making Krisha's worst-case scenario character study such a devastating wallop. With her shock of gray hair and eyes that can go from kind to cuckoo in seconds flat, the actress (and Shults' aunt) doesn't downplay the volatility or bury the bruised humanity in this woman; she can make Krisha seem simultaneously grandmotherly and like a gorgon. But Fairchild also knows that less is more, and the nuanced way she lets the tiny fractures show as things fall apart feels completely in tune with the film's muted primal scream. Her nephew may know how to frame a shot impeccably, but she knows how to fill it with both silence and, when the time comes, Shiva-worthy rage. Krisha is many things: a nightmare, a cry for help, a cringe-comedy with sobbing instead of a laugh track, a cracked family portrait, an apology and a valentine. It's also an announcement of not one but two major talents.