Fairyland Review – Sundance 2023

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The father-daughter film memoir Fairyland doesn’t quite bill itself as a biopic, but its beats nonetheless have that kind of familiarity. There’s the inciting event, in this case, the tragic and sudden death of the Abbott family matriarch, which inspires the newly widowed Steve (Scoot McNairy) to seize his chance and leave the stifling heteronormativity of the Midwest for the bohemia of 70’s San Francisco, with his young daughter Alysia in tow.

Once they arrive, it’s time for an appropriate air of destiny that permeates the pair. This is mostly because we are painfully aware of what lies in wait for the cast of characters in Fairyland who populate the duo’s first home in Haight-Ashbury, which consists mainly of lively representations of the many colours of the brightest LGBTQ rainbow. None of them could’ve foreseen the upcoming apocalypse, one which would come to be defined by four letters.

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Fairyland is also based on a memoir by Alysia herself, played as a teen and young adult by Emilia Jones, returning triumphantly to Sundance for two films after breaking out in the crowd-pleaser CODA. It’s likewise a reinforcement for the movie’s fatalism since Alysia is clearly meant to take her father’s poetic ambitions and soar to far greater heights.

“If Fairyland managed to include more of the vanished personalities and extra layers of complexity, it might be a far more compelling portrait of a vanishing generation…”

In the meantime, father and daughter have to end with the prejudices of the time, which tend to show up even in the warm, grittily bohemian embrace of the era’s setting. Alysia is the type of writer who insists on honesty to a painful degree, and her teenage and young adult years are mostly about who we actually are rather than who we’d like to be. She’s not bold enough to call out her friends for their homophobic jokes, has a deep craving for what she perceives to be normality, and even a fundamental misunderstanding of her father’s sexual preferences.

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Alysia’s coming of age in Fairyland is interesting mainly due to her brushes with history, the kind that’s currently trending. Along with the usual shout-outs to landmarks like the Castro, historical figures Anita Bryant and Harvey Milk make appearances, but politics are mostly left to the personal.

History often comes to us in clinical terms, but when Steve himself contracts AIDS, Fairyland will speak most to anyone who’s had to care for a parent and those hardened survivors who remember when they were afraid to read the newspaper, specifically the obituary section.

If Fairyland managed to include more of the vanished personalities and extra layers of complexity, it might be a far more compelling portrait of a vanishing generation and how it influenced those who came after. But it takes a greatest-hits approach to characters and context, bolstered by the fact it would take far longer than a nearly two-hour runtime to include anything close to the breadth and depth of Steve’s writing and the complex dynamics that come to define any parent-child relationship that stands the test of time.

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Fairyland manages to give its era a nice send-off, but that’s far easier to manage when said era has passed, and many of its residents no longer have the option of putting a wrinkle into things by displaying any qualities which could be taken for unlikability. If it’s not done complete justice, there’s at least a starting point for appreciating those who lived loud and proud and feel far more lively on the page than on the screen.

Final Thoughts

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