Fairyland – Film Review (Sundance 2023)

Fairyland is the debut feature from director Andrew Durham, a long-term collaborator of Sofia Coppola, who is one of the producers on the film. Coppola optioned Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father by Alysia Abbott, the source book for the film, soon after its publication. No doubt she saw some similarities with her own upbringing around the same time frame in San Francisco’s Bohemia and the father/daughter relationship at the centre of the story. Initially she was announced as a co-writer on the film back in 2013, but Durham ended up writing it himself.

Steve Abbott (Scott McNairy) is living in Atlanta, George, but his wife dies in a car accident and he is suddenly raising his daughter Alysia alone. He was a writer/poet very involved with leftist politics at the time, and had also come out as bisexual soon after their marriage, which had been an open relationship. Trying to figure out what to do after being stuck with his young daughter, he decides to move to San Francisco despite some resistance from family members. They end up living in a communal house in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district with a bunch of queer people. The story is pretty straightforward narratively, with the up and downs of Steve trying to raise his daughter and the daughter’s own journey into young adulthood. Given that it spans from the ’70s to the early ’90s, if you have the most basic sense of history, you might be able to guess the fate of Steve.

The film was shot on Super 16mm to give it a more period feel. The early scenes in the ’70s get the most out of the aesthetic choice, while the ’80s scenes seem more like bad cosplay at times. Still, it’s also mostly the exterior world on display instead of Alysia’s more interior world at home, as Alysia grows older and travels, for instance. There was also more archival material to draw on for late ’70s to add context to what was going on: Harvey Milk’s run for the Board of Supervisors, the Jonestown massacre, 1978’s California Proposition 6 (banning of gay teachers) and of course Milk’s assassination and so on. There is a whole part of the film where Alysia is in Paris for college that plays up all the Parisian cliches to the max. The film’s best moments are the simple moments of young Alysia playing dress-up with one of her father’s flatmates, or just Steve trying to figure out being a dad and probably trying to teach his daughter a little too much independence at an early age. There is a very sweet moment where Steve explains to his daughter why he has boyfriends now, because he loved her mother so much that she was the only girl for him.

Emilia Jones, who was the breakout star of CODA, plays the older Alysia. She is fine in this similar role of a teenager/young adult both loving her parents and their ways unconditionally but at times questioning their choices as she gains more of her own agency. Scoot McNairy has become one of our great actors ever since his turn in Killing Them Softly: he is an actor who can say so much with just his face and facial expressions, and you will definitely buy him as this guy. There is also a hint of an impression of the beat poet Allen Ginsberg in the performance, who was a huge influence on Abbott and also a friend. There will probably be some outrage over a straight actor playing gay in 2023, and co-star Adam Lambert (the guy who sings for Queen) already made a stink about some straight actor possibility playing George Michael in a upcoming biopic, which he later clarified by saying that only gay actors can play “gay icons,” but maybe that doesn’t apply to all “gay roles.” By the way, Lambert is atrocious in the film as one of Steve’s boyfriends.

Fairyland is a flawed film, and probably plays it all a little too safe at times, but it’s still a very enjoyable story that should be told about an unconventional upbringing. Scoot McNairy elevates the at times pedestrian filmmaking, which was clearly limited by its budget, it was clearly a passion over commerciality project for everybody concerned, and that should be celebrated. Sometimes you wish you got more of a peek into Steve’s perspective rather than just Alysia’s, but it’s her story after all. 


Ian Schultz


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