Stories about San Francisco’s gay tensions in the 1970s — and the brutal pursuit of the AIDS crisis in the following decade — often hinge on the concept of chosen families in segregated communities: bonds formed when blood ties are severed by prejudice. The study of biological families, and fatherhood in particular, is more unusual in that context, which makes Alicia Abbott’s book “Fairland: A Memoir of My Father” so moving. An account of her upbringing by a gay single father in the midst of the LGBTQ liberation movement, and her subsequent upbringing through AIDS, it balances a childish-eyed acceptance of an older woman’s unspoken or misspoken counterculture with melancholy. . In “Fairyland,” Andrew Durham imbues his story with warmth and sensitivity, though those perspectives are more fluently bridged on the page than the screen.
A photographer who made her feature-length debut as a writer-director, Durham initially follows a mushy impressionistic style that bears the influence of producer Sofia Coppola — before telling a more standard-issue, dialogue-heavy story as her young female protagonist moves into adulthood. . This tonal and aesthetic shift marks not just a coming of age but the passage of a freer, more bohemian era, though it leaves “Fairland” feeling a touch lopsided. There’s an unapologetic authenticity to its portrait of torn childhoods that later, more melodramatic depictions of father-daughter battles can’t match — even if its tear-jerking technique undoubtedly works. What strikes in both registers comes down to Scoot McNairy’s performance of quiet, good-humored grace, a father who has been through his own journey of growth – a blossoming followed by an all-too-abrupt withering – over two decades.
In its introductory scene, set in 1974, Durham trusts his audience to fill in some of the blanks, as we grasp the nuances of personal histories and relationships between the script’s elisions and the pooling shadows of DP Greta Zozula’s lovely, woozy 16mm lensing. When we get a call from scuzzy Midwestern writer Steve (McNairy) that his wife Barbara has died in a car accident, we get the information at almost the same pace (and often from a direct point of view) as his young daughter Alicia (winning newcomer Nessa Dougherty, to whom Anna Torrent’s dark have some, vaguely inquisitive gaze). His grief largely internalized, he goes along with the interrupted flow of life, while Steve — against the wishes of his starchy mother-in-law (Geena Davis) — decides they should load up their orange VW Beetle, move west and start anew. .
Arriving at a rundown San Francisco houseshare run by kooky drug dealer Paulette (an oddly cast Maria Bakalova), Alicia is initially thrown by her groovy new home environment but soon adapts, befriending the other roommates: genderqueer Johnny (Ryan Thurston) and especially Guitar. Playing hipster Eddie (Cody Fern), with whom Steve also develops a relationship. Alicia is young and innocent enough not to ask questions when, in a beautifully observed, understated scene, she finds two men in bed together: she simply runs to her father, accepting the new family unit that comes her way.
Eddie doesn’t stick around, and neither does a succession of boyfriends (played by a believable Adam Lambert) as Steve begins living openly as a gay man. But even then, silence became an indelible part of Alicia’s home life. “It’s not the summer of love anymore,” Pauletta drawls, but as Zozula’s camera weaves and soars through the sunlit crowd at the Gay Pride Parade, reflecting the young woman’s own beautiful gaze, you might think otherwise.
That innocence doesn’t last, and neither does that acceptance. As we move to the mid-’80s, Steve’s sexuality has become a source of embarrassment — shame, even — to Alicia, now a New Wave-y high school sophomore played by a pinched, anxious Emilia Jones. The lensing gets grittier and grayer as the mood turns sour: Steve, now a veteran of the city’s poetry scene, is still dating and dancing, but whispers of an unknown virus signal the beginning of the end. She struggles to reach out to her daughter, whose teenage stupor is exacerbated by questions about her parents that she never thought to ask before. He keeps his homosexuality a secret from his friends, whose thoughtless anti-gay jokes are a more perceptive signal of the changing socio-political tide in the Reagan era than news headlines and radio reports sporadically providing updates on a segregated environment.
Alicia has an internal conflict going on that neither the script nor Jones’ performance can fully investigate before pushing the tragedy drama into a higher key. Alicia Twilley’s decorative scene — now an NYU exchange student — lives on La vie belle There is only an inevitable, angry homecoming to Paris, punctuated by redemptive confessions, apologies and voiceover addresses lifted somewhat arbitrarily from the text.
It says a lot for McNairy’s casual, hangdog sincerity as a performer that these passages sometimes feel overwritten but never feel overly emotional: “Was I a good person?” she asks her daughter with a genuinely inquisitive look, her voice slipping over the preterite past tense of the question so easily that it breaks your heart in two, with or without the help of Michael Penn’s beautiful, faintly maudlin piano score. At its most thoughtful, “Fairland” conveys a dual sense of loss — of personal love and lovers, and spanning entire historical moments and communities — head on shoulder, hand in hand, finally understood in small, sweet gestures like a silence.