‘Krisha’
Director:
Trey Edward Shults
Stars: Krisha Fairchild, Bill Wise
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

A first-time feature filmmaker debuts with a no-budget indie about a troubled family, played mostly by his own family. Described like so, the SXSW hit “Krisha” sounds like a toxic cocktail of the earnest and the TMI. It never feels that way while watching it, even though you don’t need a press release to tell you very real, very private demons are being exorcised before our eyes. At once familiar and sui generis, specific and universal, it thoroughly reworks what could have been a thumb-twiddling family saga into something unique and gutting.

RELATED: Interview: Michael Shannon talks "Midnight Special" and finding realistic films boring

Trey Edwards Shults begins it like a horror movie: Against nerve-jangling music, it offers a creeping, slow zoom into a close-up of his hero, Krisha (Krisha Fairchild), against a deep black background, staring wide-eyed, fragile and maybe even accusatory, into the lens. What follows is even more unnerving: Krisha, a 50-something hippie type, goes to a Thanksgiving family dinner. We know she’s estranged the moment she drives her pickup truck into a clogged Texas suburb, though we won’t know it’s been 10 years since she’s seen any of them till much later. Everyone, from her sister to in-laws to a pack of football-watching bros to a dozen marauding dogs, is gracious to her. But we know the situation, or even just Krisha herself, is a ticking time bomb.

There are skeletons waiting to fly out of the closet, one of them predictable, another legitimately shocking and not officially confirmed until the last 30 seconds. But Shults has ways to make his drama seem fresh and unusual. For one, he makes form as important as content, maybe moreso. He shoots a lot of it in heroic long takes that trail actors or bob and weave through cluttered group action. These could have been show-off shots if they didn’t seem more improvised than meticulously planned, and especially if they weren’t organically tied to Krisha’s feelings of disconnection. She’s someone everyone’s trying to ignore while trying to be ignored herself, skulking about the background of spaces, observing people, with a mix of jealousy and contempt, who’ve actually gotten their stuff together.

RELATED: Interview: Clive Owen says acting with kids, as in "The Confirmation," makes him a better actor

Shults doesn’t just do long takes. He mixes things up, with uncomfortably close shots on scampering dogs or documentary-like, clearly improvised hang-out sessions with non-pros being themselves. There’s some stuff-shooting between Krisha and her good ol’ boy brother-in-law (Bill Wise, the only real professional actor). Their convos start chummy, but when we return to the same chat later in the film he unleashes the full force of his buried discontent.

For it turns out Krisha is not only the family’s black sheep who never settled down; she actually abandoned them for a life whose details are only suggested, not explained. (It’s a relief to learn Fairchild, Shults’ aunt, isn’t actually playing herself, though hardly a relief that her character is inspired by other family members, including his late father.)

Like many indies feted on the festival circuit, “Krisha” morphs from comedy to drama, and it even goes farther than most: It’s anxiously funny before it’s a barnstorming drama of teary arguments, shouting and objects being smashed. It’s not the sincerity that makes “Krisha” special; it’s that it remains phantasmagoric — a subjective nightmare that can turn on a dime from amusing to terrifying. Even when it’s simple it hurts: Shults shoots a chat with one younger relative, played by Shults himself, in one take, staring dead-eyed as he refuses to look at her while she pleads, unsuccessfully, to repair their damaged relationship. When Krisha finally loses it, Shults turns it into a montage of arresting images diced up so much you can’t tell where you are on the story’s timeline. Even if it was all one family’s dirty laundry, which it isn’t, “Krisha” would be a stunning achievement.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge