Brash yet intimate, writer-director-editor Trey Edward Shults' observant, unnerving first feature transcends the notion of a “promising debut.” Here, the promise is already fulfilled on the screen, which bustles with chaotic family life — and prickles with anxiety. Krisha is a heartsick family story that plays as psychological horror, its themes of estrangement and addiction juiced at every moment by Shults' vigorous — even pushy — expressionism. Steel yourself for wheeling terror as 60-something Krisha (Krisha Fairchild), visiting her sister's home for her first holiday get-together in who knows how long, walks in furious circles in the kitchen as the turkey entrusted to her roasts and she discovers that the timer has gone missing. The camera spins, of course, just as it zips across the floor in dog's-eye zooms, or, later, tracks slowly down a too-narrow hallway bedecked in photos of relatives and edged with the darkest of darkness.
This young maximalist is committed at each moment to the extremes of everyday feeling, to lighting in you the conflagration already raging in his troubled heroine. We meet Krisha outside her sister's home in a smartly off-putting long take, shot through a lens that perverts, just a touch, the edges of the frame. Like her, we're disoriented, even among the suburban plainness. We follow behind her as, with wounded uncertainty, she gathers her bag, mutters to herself and marches to the wrong house. Then, approaching the right one, she barks out in disgust after stomping into a mud puddle. Inside, she's greeted with a glut of family, a tender whirl of names and hugs, everyone worried about the same thing: Can she keep it together?
You'll worry, too, even if you find that the film sometimes bears down too hard. Shults dares to exhaust, to overwhelm, to upset. You know, watching, that Krisha — nerve-racked, heavily medicated, aware she's on eggshells — will eventually be at the center of a disaster, that this dinner she's prepping for can't possibly go unspoiled. And you know that when it all goes down it’s going to hurt. Good lord, does it. The amateur cast, Shults' own friends and family, ranges from convincing (the blithe, brawling teen boys) to hilarious (Chris Doubek as Krisha's cranky doctor brother-in-law) to extraordinary (Krisha and Robyn Fairchild, Shults' aunt and mother, real sisters acing big, teary scenes).
Shults (who plays a small key role himself) filmed Krisha over nine days in his mother's house, and he's packed it and his frame with raw life suggestive of Cassavetes. The actors often seem to be improvising but Shults is always in control, teasing out the mysterious specifics of Krisha's long absence. Even the familiar elements of this particular family's drama are invested — through vigorous scripting, directing and acting — with almost elemental power.