Sundance 2023

Fairyland review – mostly heartwarming chronicle of unconventional parenting

Though its dialogue tends to be heavy-handed, Andrew Durham's adaptation still thrives as a showcase for star Scoot McNairy

“Do you want me to vacuum?” Alysia (Emilia Jones) asks her dad, Steve (Scoot McNairy). “Please, just so I can hear it,” he pleads. It is the loveliest moment in Andrew Durham’s Fairyland, a Sofia Coppola-produced adaptation of the eponymous memoir of the same name by Alysia Abbott.

The simple tenderness of this brief piece of dialogue stands out not only because of the context in which it happens but also because Fairyland, a father-daughter drama set at the height of the AIDS crisis, clumsily scavenges for emotional depth through often over-exposed dialogue. It is an intrusive choice diametrically opposed to the film’s visual and tonal subtlety, Durham’s script all too willing to arm-wrestle his direction.

Still, the on-the-nose dialogue, frustrating as it is, doesn’t fully damper this heartwarming chronicling of unconventional parenting. After precociously losing her mother, little Alysia is uprooted from the white-fenced suburbia to the bustle of San Francisco by her loving dad – a queer writer who tussles with the tight shackles of traditional fatherhood. She is raised within the loving walls of a 70s stick-style house, tended by the hands of strangers soon made family by an all-bonding need for community.

As a kid, Alysia is mesmerised by the potpourri of guests who rotate the rooms – and couches – of the crammed commune. She understands at an early age that her father is in no rush to replace her mother. “Because your mother was my favourite girl and I could never love another girl as much as I loved her,” he says when the curious girl asks why he only brings home boyfriends, now.

This refreshingly open line of communication between parent and child makes Fairyland an obvious companion to Mike Mills’ 2016 20th Century Women, a similarly frank tale of parenting nested in the bohemian latchkey era of the late 70s. The two films harbour many other affinities, from the central brick-and-mortar haven that houses loving societal strays to the pastel-tinted cinematography aptly crafted to make the film play as if a memory.

Alas, if 20th Century Women works as an ensemble piece, Fairyland is very much Scoot McNairy’s vehicle, the actor beautifully encompassing Steve’s metamorphosis – one guided by the eyes of his daughter. As a child, Alysia frames her father through the halo of adoration, McNairy light on his feet, dancing through the creaking old house as if a mythical creature. As Alysia ages, the outer world taints her perception of her dad, McNairy weighed by the quiet teenage angst of his daughter, sneaking in through darkened corridors, his presence void of any natural light.

CODA-breakout Emilia Jones is never quite par to McNairy, with Durnham’s film losing much of its heart when newcomer Nessa Dougherty – who plays young Alysia – exits the scene. Jones is at her greatest whenever allowed to sit quietly by her dad, the overwhelming presence of impending loss floating heavily between the two. It is a shame these moments are scarce, but Fairyland still proves a moving homage to fathers and sons and friends bonded by deep grief, but also by unfaltering love.

Fairyland was screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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