Children grow up with all different kinds of role models. Strict parents insist on respect and adherence to rules from their offspring, while more relaxed guardians may treat their younger relatives more as friends or peers. Both approaches can have mixed results, depending on the temperament of all parties and the environments in which they are raised. For Alysia Abbott, her father’s unique style left a distinct impression, one movingly conveyed in Andrew Durham‘s adaptation of her memoir Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father.
The film opens in what’s simply described as “the Midwest” in 1973, where Steve (Scoot McNairy) is awoken by a phone call informing him that his wife has been killed in a car accident. Against the wishes of his disapproving mother-in-law (Geena Davis), Steve takes his daughter Alysia (Nessa Dougherty) to San Francisco, where she has an unusual upbringing that finds her father frequently bringing home male companions. Eventually, she grows up and heads off to college — where she’s played by CODA star Emilia Jones — though she cannot shake the influence her father’s free-flowing lifestyle has left on her.
The rhythm of Fairyland is downright infectious, and all its technical aspects converge to create an immersive cinematic experience. The grainy cinematography by Greta Zozula invokes the 1970s, as does the production design by Olivia Kanz. The older Alysia is introduced wearing a defining cap that signals a transition to adulthood, just one of the worthwhile contributions by Costume Designer Maggie Whitaker. News footage is seamlessly incorporated into the narrative to ground the story in real-world events such as Ronald Reagan‘s election and Harvey Milk‘s political campaign, both of which, obviously, had major consequences for gay men in the United States.
Steve and Alysia’s unconventional father-daughter relationship is what drives this film, which explores it in all its fascinating facets. When Steve, a writer, reads a poem that references marital problems with Alysia’s mother, Alysia confronts him about the white lie he told her years earlier about the reason he only had boyfriends and not girlfriends after her death — she was the only woman he could love. When Steve reflects on how Alysia was a precocious child, she calls him a childish adult. The young Alysia is around many things that may not be age-appropriate — certainly not to her grandparents — though they do prepare her for life in an unexpected way. She also wrestles with revealing the truth about her father’s sexual orientation to her friends, who frequently make derogatory gay jokes.
McNairy, a dependable supporting player who has been to Sundance before with films like Touchy Feely and Frank, is a natural fit as Steve, someone who is nonchalant and generally agreeable but just as unwilling to let anyone else tell him what to do. In her film debut, Dougherty crafts Alysia as a curious observer, someone who would like to think she’s mature but still doesn’t understand much about the world. Jones takes over the role without missing a beat, carrying the weight of her younger self’s experience into adulthood. It’s a remarkably different turn from her other equally compelling Sundance performance in Cat Person, one that is indicative of tremendous range and an ability to reach deep within the heart and soul of her characters. She and McNairy are a delight to watch together, keeping things relatively upbeat and entertaining even while circumstances turn grim.
Steve feels larger-than-life, able to subsist without much stability or any kind of plan, but that seems appropriate given that this film’s source material is a memoir by his daughter. He’s not painted in any way as flawless, but he definitely emerges as a heroic figure who did what he was able to do under unpredictable circumstances without compromising who he was. Fairyland serves as a tribute to him that skillfully dwells on the impact he left on his daughter, staying with her story as he fades from view, lingering as an affable, chaotic presence that she — and audiences — won’t soon forget.
Fairyland premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it will screen once more this week.