Sundance 2023 Film Review: Fairyland

“She’s young. It’s not too late for her to have a real family” coaxes Geena Davis’ character “Munca” at the beginning of Fairyland, based on the 2013 memoir of the same name by Alysia Abbott. It follows young father Steve Abbott (Scoot McNairy), as he takes his five-year-old daughter Alysia to San Francisco to raise her by himself after his wife is killed in a car accident. At his wife’s funeral, her mother tries to reason with him to leave his daughter in her care so that she can be raised in a traditional household with a traditional family. Steve rejects that and takes her across the country.

Fairyland in an exploration of what a family is and how the roles of parent and child can be defined and redefined continually throughout life. Once in San Francisco, in 1971, Steve is able to live as an out gay man—something only afforded to him in secrecy up to this point in his life. He hides nothing from his daughter as she becomes an integral part of his relationships, their found family, and home. The film follows their relationship through adulthood as they grapple with substance abuse, neglect, empowerment, homophobia, life, loss and the AIDS epidemic.

Directed and written by Andrew Durham, Fairyland is a heavy, deep, and poignant film. It’s never easy to watch, but Durham doesn’t get bogged down in melodrama or preaching. The entire world and message is filtered through the lives of this father and daughter who struggle under the expectations placed on them by the outside world while in the unexplored territory of their approach to life. 

Durham begins the film, shooting on grainy film stock, with the handling and approach of a brand new filmmaker, but deftly shifts the look and feel of the film to more steady, clear, and mature filmmaking as time goes on. It’s a subtle shift, but masterfully done as Alysia (Emilia Jones) grows up and grows more steady in her role as child/parent to Steve. 

The painful contradiction at the center of the film is that Steve wants to provide a life of freedom, independence, and love to his daughter that he never had. His lack of ability to live authentically has left him in an eternal state of arrested development. When he’s thrown into the role of single parent, he’s not ready or able to raise a child. He struggles and somewhat fails to live up to that role for the rest of his life. But Alysia, with the life she was given, is able to grow up and live up to the challenges life presents her. Toward the end of the film, she’s thrust into a role of responsibility and has to return to the AIDS-ravaged city of her upbringing and care for her ailing father. A role she is not ready for, but one that she is able to rise and meet with strength, compassion, fearlessness and love. 

And that’s the beauty of Fairyland. Bravery and authenticity do not guarantee success, but they provide platforms for others to live the truest versions of their lives because noble failures illuminate the path to noble successes. 

With an incredible cast, led by Scoot McNairy and anchored by Emilia Jones, Fairyland doesn’t move like a traditional narrative film—where choices and challenges of the characters would advance the plot. Time advances the plot. Choices made inside that time change lives, but not the eventual outcome. We’re allowed a window into these quiet lives as they grow, move forward, and wind down. McNairy (as Steve Abbott) brings a cheery, ever-present optimism through the struggles and pain of both his internal and external life. Regardless of his failings and successes, he manages to convey the wonder and love of a poet parent. Emilia Jones portrays Alysia from teenage years into adulthood, a challenging tasks as she struggles to come to terms with the responsibility thrust on her from childhood to care for herself and her father. Her acting is quiet and fierce, stable and caring. 

All in all, the story of Steve and Alysia Abbott told through Fairyland, is a story of the power of family—whether traditional or not—and how the courage to live your life empowers all of those around you.

Upcoming Sundance Film Festival screenings of Fairyland:

Redstone Cinemas – 7, Tuesday, January 24, 2023 9:00PM MT at Redstone Cinemas – 7

Thursday, January 26, 2023 11:20AM MT at The Ray Theatre

Saturday, January 28, 2023 11:55AM MT at Rose Wagner

Phillip Sevy
Phillip Sevy
Phillip Sevy is a writer/artist who has had work published by Dark Horse Comics (Triage, The House, Tomb Raider), Image Comics (The Freeze, The Tithe), and others (Paradox). When he's not at his computer working, he's planning one of the many D&D games he runs.

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