Director Trey Edward Shults treads a familiar dramatic path in Krisha, an edgy drama about a dysfunctional family that gathers for Thanksgiving. To his credit, Shults travels this familiar arc in a style that proves unsettling from start to finish.
Shults's tipsy camera and reliance on a disturbing stream of music enhance a story in which the title character -- a recovering alcoholic -- visits her family after a long and presumably estranged absence.
From the beginning, Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) teeters on the edge of collapse. Krisha's face still shows traces of youthful beauty, but years of abuse have made it slack.
Krisha's family, including a disaffected son (played by Shults) greets her warmly but warily. She's the ticking time-bomb that's bound to explode before the holiday is done.
In her room, Krisha opens a locked box that contains her stock of pharmaceuticals, and the movie's first shot (an intense close-up of Krisha's ravaged face) underscores a feeling that something monstrous looms.
Fairchild - who in real-life is Shults's aunt -- gives an elusive performance that evade's quick categorization. Krisha's riven by contradiction: She's sincerely interested in reconnecting with her family. At the same time, she seems destined to find ways to make real reconciliation impossible.
Robyn Fairchild (Shults's mother) plays Krisha's sister Robyn; she and her husband -- a doctor played by Chris Doubek -- become background characters, as does almost everyone else in the film, including a group of young people who may be relatives or friends. Everyone assembles in a spacious Texas home that, in reality, beings to Shults's parents.
Aside from Krisha, the movie's most vividly drawn character is Doyle (Bill Wise), a man who establishes an outsiders' kinship with Krisha, but who also retains a judgmental edge. Krisha's attempts to re-establish a relationship with her son prove futile. A victim of years of neglect, he's too wounded to bury his resentments.
Shults has worked with Terrence Malick, and the master's influence becomes apparent. Shults isn't much interested in expository dialogue or explanation; he tries to set his movie in the indigestible present as he builds toward a scene of devastating emotional carnage.
After you sort through the stylistic flourishes (at times, Shults even shifts aspect ratios), Krisha becomes a fairly conventional drama that's trying as hard as it can to ratchet up tension and anxiety. Shults's movie has its searing moments, and the performances are marked by vivid authenticity.
Like a drunk who leans in too close, you may sometimes find yourself wishing Krisha would get out of your face. Maybe that's how a drama such as this has to work. Whatever you think about Krisha, Shults can't be accused of pulling his punches.