“Poetry doesn’t need to make sense as long as it makes you feel something,” Steve (Scott McNairy) tells his prepubescent daughter Alysia (Nessa Dougherty) in “Fairyland,” after he reads her one of his works. The two have just settled into San Francisco after the death of the family matriarch, at once a tragedy and source of freedom for Steve, who can pursue the Bohemian creative life he always wanted as well as the sexual preference he long suppressed – all things that Alysia is far too young to understand, though like the poetry, there seems to be some things that she can latch onto and build upon. In Andrew Durham’s touching adaptation of Alysia Abbott’s 2013 memoir, this formative period never stopped for as long as Alysia knew Steve, someone who had fatherhood thrust upon him as much as other traditional norms in American life he didn’t much fancy, and covering two decades in which these tensions came to boil over between the Summer of Love and the conservatism of the Reagan Administration, the film impressively envisions the father-daughter relationship as a reflection of how culture wars play out, with the influence of a prior generation shaping the one to come in good ways and bad.
Played as an adult by Emilia Jones, Alysia is constantly left to think she’s being neglected by Steve, who never misses an opportunity to make up for lost time in the Castro, but he’s under the impression that he’s giving her the independence to find out who she is for herself that he would’ve cherished growing up, thinking nothing of sending her on a Metro bus at eight, after recently arriving in San Francisco with little instinct as to what stop to get off at, or letting her roam freely about a house of artists where nude cavorting can be stumbled upon in every room. Alysia only learns later that her friends at school thought her father was the coolest, but at the time, it could be mortifying and disorienting, having no one else to lean on for guidance but him with her mother gone.
One thinks a custody battle might be on the horizon with Alysia’s grandmother Anne (Geena Davis) making leery calls to the house, wishing Steve might think differently about her side of the family’s offer to take Alysia in, but “Fairyland” is far too interesting to take such an obvious turn, though overt references to the times it’s taking place in at any given moment can be slightly overdone at times. (Cinematographer Greta Zozula’s approach, subtly mimicking the style of films shot in each era from the frenzied ‘60s to the spare ‘80s, is a lovely counterpoint.) Instead, Durham sees the central conflict happening inside of Alysia herself, expressed quite elegantly by Jones when she begins to be confronted with some of the same choices that Steve once was, wondering whether she should be a dutiful daughter or putting her own desires first. With Steve’s example, those decisions are difficult, but apparently not so much for Durham to convey in their full weight and while the uniqueness of Alysia and Steve’s relationship may be an initial draw for “Fairyland,” it’s how relatable it all becomes for anyone with a family that sticks with you.
“Fairyland” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26th at 11:20 am at the Ray Theatre in Park City and January 28th at 11:55 am at the Rose Wagner Center in Salt Lake City.