“I had a poetry professor in college who said, ‘[before you try to write anything else], first you have to write the book of the mother and father,'” says Robin Weigert, jokingly exaggerating a pedantic voice. Weigert, who stars in the recently released film Take Me to the River and is best known as Deadwood‘s Calamity Jane, is only half kidding about this goofy poetic generalization. It applies to Take Me to the River, which is loosely based on a dream debut filmmaker Matt Sobel had about his own family and was shot on their own Nebraska farm, as well as Trey Edward Shults’ recent feature Krisha.
Prior to these narrative films, there’d been a particularly fruitful trend in documentary filmmaking, of directors wading into the murk of dark family dramas: In Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette used crude 2003 iMovie software to piece together a furiously psychedelic collage of his childhood with his mother, who was undergoing electroshock therapy for schizophrenia. In Family Affair (2010), Chico Colvard explored his father’s abuse of his sisters, and the ways they’d nonetheless maintained relationships with him through adulthood. Then, Sarah Polley’s 2012 documentary Stories We Tell saw the filmmaker soliciting her family members’ stories about her deceased mother, leading to the realization that Polley was conceived through an extramarital affair, and that the man she knew as her father wasn’t related to her through biology.
Of Polley’s film, Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times, “The idea, or so it first seems, is that every fondly unearthed detail, anecdote and memory will fill in the biography of a woman whose seemingly ordinary life — of tending children, husband and home — contained multitudes and mysteries, and with tugging and shaping can be tidied into a story.” Stories We Tell used a structural conceit to demonstrate the film’s own revelations. Polley creates expectations of authenticity by peppering her documentary with what looks like home video footage. But in the film’s final moments, we see Polley directing a lookalike actress, and it becomes clear that much of the footage was Polley and this actress’ collaborative reconstitution of Polley’s mother in dramatizations used to complete the portrait. This was Polley’s way of making her mother comprehensible to both the audience and, presumably, herself. The film ultimately reveals itself to be a perfectly conceived treatise on the connections between familial memory — the composition of photo albums, the recounting of particular stories ad infinitum, the eulogizing of the dead — and filmmaking.
Indeed, the first narratives we learn are the narratives of our families, and Stories We Tell seems like a bridge to the recent trend of fictional, semi-autobiographical indie films from directors making their debuts by sorting through these personal stories. In Josh Mond’s first feature, last year’s James White, the filmmaker reimagined his mother’s recent death from cancer through fictionalized characters. Now, Krisha and Take Me to the River incorporate elements of filmmakers’ real family lives into the processes behind their simultaneously nightmarish and heartfelt films.
Though you could argue that the formative nature of family makes its way subconsciously into most artists’ works, both Take Me to the River and Krisha go beyond merely extrapolating from family legacies: both were shot at the filmmakers’ family homes, and Krisha’s stars are director Trey Edward Shults’ aunt, mother, and grandmother, along with Shults himself. Made through processes that resemble, alternately, group therapy and uncomfortable familial RPGs, these films demonstrate a further step toward Polley’s vision of the search for clarity through narrative fabrications. For Shults, with Krisha, the search for clarity is hereditary, while with River that search seems more sociopolitical.
Sarah Polley frames family as both foundational and nebulous in Stories We Tell. By the end of the film, it becomes something of a hovering, dreamlike entity that viewers see each member pulled from, pinned down, and provided with their own narrative. Sobel’s and Shults’ films pull from familial nightmares (Sobel’s dreamed, Shults’ real) to illustrate these directors’ own definitions of family. Krisha draws from experience to craft a meticulous portrait of the emotional conflicts underlying a family dinner; Take Me to the River uses experience to look outward, to the American extremes that might polarize a family.
Starring three generations of Shults’ family, Krisha’s focus is on the titular character, played by his aunt, Krisha Fairchild. (While she is a professional actor, her co-stars – Shults’ mother, Robyn Fairchild, and grandmother, Billie Fairchild – are not.) Krisha’s character is returning to her family after a long estrangement, clearly due to the same antics that ensue throughout the film. The character is an addict and an alcoholic, coming home for Thanksgiving to a household that reacts to her with equal parts skepticism, judgment, and (less visibly) affection. In the course of one evening, she attempts to make a turkey and ease her way, relative by relative, back into her family’s favor, sometimes hovering longingly in the background in a way that’s almost threatening.
The plot is, really, that simple. But Shults, his aunt, and his mother pull it off by virtue of a painfully detailed familiarity with their subjects: there’s enough specificity, enough of an arc, in every gesture that dialogue and story are pretty irrelevant.
The familiarity doesn’t come from the actors playing themselves, but rather through their participation in a scrambled version of their real family life. “The movie’s called Krisha, her name is Krisha, so people assume it’s a movie literally about [the real person],” says Shults. “But it’s not at all; she’s a big, sweet hippie.” He emphasizes that, unlike her character, his aunt loves dogs – and, more importantly, is not an alcoholic who terrorizes family reunions. However, the character’s backstory is based on the recent real-life deaths of two of Shults’ family members due to addiction; one was his cousin, who relapsed when she came home for a family reunion, then died soon after. The second was Shults’ father, who he hadn’t seen for ten years before reuniting with him on his deathbed — the same amount of time that’s passed since Krisha’s character last saw her son.
While Shults’ Krisha presents an altered version of real events, Sobel’s Take Me to the River, also set at a reunion, was based on a nightmare the director had six years ago. Like his film, the dream was about a false accusation at one of his family’s annual reunions. And to recreate it, he staged one such reunion, with dramatically altered characters — on his family’s own land.
The dire tensions in Sobel’s film are not based on actual relationships or occurrences, and he’s emphasized that the characters aren’t meant to faithfully represent anyone. They do, however, draw on the director’s own past experiences — as the son of comfortable, college-educated parents who attended reunions with them at this particular farm — to mine the causes of America’s dangerous climate of sociopolitical polarization. Geographic vastness and a fundamentally exclusionary economic and educational system are among the divisive factors for the family in the film. And so we see the paralysis of empathy between identities such as rural versus metropolitan, religious versus secular, conservative versus liberal.
The plot follows a young, proudly Californian, proudly (and recently “out”) gay teen named Ryder (Logan Miller) and his parents to the aforementioned reunion on the Nebraska farm where she was raised. Ryder’s mother and father are firmly accepting of his identity, except insomuch as they firmly ask that he not come out to the rest of his family. While he obeys his parents’ wishes, his Nebraskan relatives arrive at their own label for him after he emerges from a barn following his nine-year-old cousin, who runs screaming from the scene, with a bloodstain in an incriminating place on her dress. The label, scrawled in graffiti across his mother’s car the following morning, is “California pervert,” though “pedophile” would be a more explicit expression of their assumption.
The situation is worsened by an old family secret and by his family’s preconceived perception of him as “other.” This instance provides the tension that courses through the rest of the film, which is ultimately less about Ryder being scapegoated than the perpetuation of sexual shame – and even, perhaps, abuse – across generations, a legacy that is weaponized through characters’ envy and misunderstandings of people who live on the other end of the American spectrum.
Sobel’s film comes directly from his life in that it draws on the perceived — and, as he frames it, somewhat illusory — polarities between his own comfortable upbringing in California and his mother’s agrarian youth in Nebraska, which came into focus when Sobel attended reunions as a child.
Ryder can, as the film’s subject, be seen as a dream-world surrogate for Sobel. (Ryder’s otherness among his family is, however, heightened by the fact that he is gay, while Sobel is not, and torn between his adolescent pride and his mother’s desperate urging not to come out.) And Robin Weigert’s matriarch character, Cindy, was originally based more explicitly on Sobel’s mom — but ultimately, Sobel says he and Weigert found a character that combines aspects of both of their mothers.
“Matt’s mother was, in a sense, offered to me as a character study early on. But Matt’s mother seemed very sensible and grounded to me,” Weigert says, contrasting Sobel’s mom to her own character. “But she is a brilliant woman who grew up on a farm and who is a doctor, and so to see someone who carries that history with her and has become quite other is fascinating.” She explains that she accessed her striking “pairing of impulses,” to do things that are “not protective and then to [suddenly] do something fiercely protective as a mash-up,” through “complicated moments [she] had with [her own] mother.”
Meanwhile, Ryder’s father, played by Richard Schiff, is a placating presence in a film where insinuated accusations punctuate long-boiling resentments. He has a spiel about Aikido — which Sobel says was taken almost verbatim from his dad — that he gives Ryder to teach him about his own prejudices and the conflicts he’s bringing to the situation.
The dream that inspired the film wasn’t the result of specific events, but rather of a certain climate of repression. “‘If it don’t scare the horses’ is a phrase I heard a lot from my grandma when she was alive,” he tells me. “It means, you can do whatever you want in your own home, as long it’s not in the street. What it means for [the family in the film], though, because they literally have horses is, ‘If it doesn’t disturb business as usual on the farm, don’t talk about it.’ If you’re upset, you can still go out and feed the horses — don’t talk about it. It allows feelings to fester for many years and come out in unpredictable ways.” (Fittingly, the quote is thought to have been spoken by British actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell to describe homosexual activity.)
The accusations in the film stem in part from envy over one character’s having been granted the mobility of an education — and the privilege to start a family wherever she wants — while another remained stuck. Take Me to the River depicts, on a familial scale, how a country where higher education demands an immense expenditure creates a polarized culture marked by extremes of compensatory pride, which in turn results in a vast communication gap. It seems particularly relevant in this frighteningly polarized, angry bipartisan mess of this election year.
“The part of my mother that ended up in the story is somebody who straddles two different worlds and is caught between the family that she grew up with and the family she’s created in California, and sensing them drifting further an further apart,” Sobel says. This shows in the film on small and large scales.
While the family in Sobel’s film comes to represent national anxieties, Krisha — as it zooms in on one character’s addiction and how it affects the rest of the family — courses with a heightened hereditary anxiety. This is, of course, amplified when we know the shared heredity of the actors. This is a family film that’s about the nature of family at its most quintessential (on the most quintessentially shame-inducing pressure cooker of a family holiday: Thanksgiving).
Featuring little dialogue but many crisply focused close-ups of Shults’ family members’ similar faces, Krisha presents a lucid vision of both the ineffable bond between family members and the fear of biological inevitabilities that relatives can inspire. “My father suffered from addiction his entire life,” Shults explains. “My grandma had it, and I’m very prone to get it. I don’t suffer from it, fortunately, at least so far. That’s because my mom and stepdad were both there, and I’d be a mess without them.”
The relationships, recast though they are (with Krisha playing Shults’ biological mom and his mom playing his aunt), feel wholly developed with hardly any exposition, likely due to everyone’s shared — if altered — pasts. And indeed, the shoot sounds as though it doubled as a nine-day family therapy session. Not at all coincidentally, Shults’ mother is a therapist, as is his stepdad. “They’re all about bringing out your skeletons,” says Shults. “To me, the movie’s horrific and brutal, and it goes dark — but there’s a positive in that. Because it’s a confrontation: it’s confronting your demons, your rage, your alcoholism. But you have to confront it.”
Shults explains that there was no skepticism on the part of his family — they were the first audience for his films, and were supportive of the idea of working on it with him. “I wanted to build to this incredibly intricate moment with two sisters in the dark of the night just talking, one trying to connect to the other one,” he says. “I had a feeling that if these two real-life sisters [Krisha and his mother, Robyn] who’re really connected are playing it in a movie — they both love each other deeply and I feel you can feel that in the film.”
When Krisha Fairchild spoke to NPR about the film, she said, “We felt that if we told our story that people would feel solace that they weren’t alone in that. There was no surprise that he would take that pain and turn it into something that would help other people. That’s kind of who he is.” She added, “I had a lot of nights I cried myself to sleep about the [recently deceased family members] that I was representing.”
Krisha — both the film itself and the narrative surrounding its conception and production — looks microscopically into this specific family, rather than outward. This is particularly clear in the fact that one of reasons Shults wanted to make the film was to showcase his aunt’s talent. “I always wanted to write Krisha a great role, because I made short films with her,” Shults says. “I thought she was a fantastic actress that no one had ever created the right role for…I want to see her continue to work and work with other people. I’m hoping once it’s out there, that’ll create so many more opportunities. The movie sits on her shoulders. I want people to get that.”
It thus seems, in more ways than one, that the film is its own healing mechanism. Rather than suppressing the tragedy that can accompany intimacy, the Fairchilds and Shults worked through it, gathering it into a fiction, and releasing it as an example of a family collectively taking the incomprehensible and uncontrollable into their own hands. People cannot control the unruly realities of tragedy — but they can shape it into a story.
Between Sobel’s imagined nightmare and Shults’ real one, the two films see the directors essentially going back to the source — the family home — to make sense of it all. For young, first-time filmmakers, the family home also provides one (very cheap) space over which they have mastery. Shults, 28, and Sobel, 29, take advantage of an extensive literacy in the ins and outs of these subjects and places that more experienced directors might have with subjects and places exterior to their upbringings. The aesthetics of both films — from Krisha’s vertiginous shots of a contained domestic space to River’s sun-bleached, horrific tour of the family farm — transform that familiarity into something uncanny and hyperreal, as in a dream or a memory.
The unsettlingly flat and expansive location of Take Me to the River, which makes characters seem all the more vulnerable to scrutiny and, well, potential gunfire, becomes a homespun character unto itself. “My goal was to suggest, as strongly as I could, my familiarity with this specific location,” Sobel says.
As with Sobel, Shults’ extreme familiarity with Krisha’s location — his mother’s home — had long been a source of artist interest for the director. “I knew that once we moved into that house we wanted to make a movie there,” he says. And it shows. The film uses sweeping, disorienting, Malickian shots (Shults once interned for the director) to painstakingly explore every crevice of the home, as though interrogating the place’s own psychology. In many scenes, the conflict seems to be Krisha v. House, with Shults juxtaposing the details of the domestic space with the details of his aunt’s face, illustrating how the nuclear family’s standard suburban home might weigh on a character like Krisha, a 60-something addict who abandoned her son in the ultimate failure of a nuclear familial ideal.
“I hope that it feels lived in and real and historical, because that’s where we literally lived,” Shults says. “How we organized the family photos, the realness of the house. I structured the entire shooting around that house. Literally: thinking about how I was going to start with wider lenses and longer takes so that we could see the height of the ceilings.”
A hilariously Freudian memory lapse arises during my interview with Sobel and his film’s stars. The director recalls a rehearsal, supposedly fueled by Sobel’s desire to recreate his own somewhat coddled childhood, where they collected all of Weigert and Miller’s costumes. He remembers, uncertainly, that Weigert would “dress and undress” Miller and he would be “immobile.” He continues, “And I think I had [Robin] dressing [Logan] like a little baby. My mom did coddle me quite a bit, and I wanted it to feel like tickling and cuddling this boy was something Cindy could still do to her 17-year-old son.” After he tells the story, Miller laughs and responds that he thinks this is a “fever dream” Sobel may have had. Weigert doesn’t remember this rehearsal, either.
It seems the events Sobel recalls never happened. It does not, however, appear to be a disingenuous story; he’s openly uncertain about the veracity of the memory even before his cast denies it outright. Sobel has, unknowingly, created a perfect anecdotal example of what our conversation all about — that may not be rooted in reality. It’s tempting to include here for two reasons: if it had taken place, this rehearsal exercise would have been the quintessential example of the physical act of fictionalizing family. But because it didn’t, it shows how a semi-fictional story paralleling whatever really happened in actual rehearsals can lend immediate clarity to a relationship. As in Sobel’s film, the events may not be real, but reality underlies the thought process that created them.
Through their distinctive processes, Shults and Sobel have reassigned aspects of their own family lives to the visions in their films. Shults essentially played a long, hyper-specific, and generally realistic RPG with his family as a means of working through their recent hardships; the result is so authentically specific to them that it should resonate with everyone. Sobel drew on the regional poles of his own family experience to tackle an undercurrent of national shame. These fictionalized visions of family, for these debut filmmakers, prove to be a legitimate doorway leading both inward and outward. As Stories We Tell expressed so well, we’re always making our own fictions of family, shaping them into stories that we can share and, through outsiders’ understandings, begin to comprehend ourselves.