Sundance Review: Fairyland Explores a Father-Daughter Relationship During Turbulent, Tragic 1980s San Francisco

From producer Sofia Coppola and first-time feature writer/director Andrew Durham, Fairyland follows the true-life story of young Alysia, growing up in the 1970s with her single father Steve (Scoot McNairy), in the years following her mother’s tragic death. Without much fanfare (and much to the chagrin of Steve’s mother-in-law, Geena Davis), the two relocate to San Francisco so Steve can pursue his love of writing, particularly poetry. This also allows him the chance to explore his newfound passion for sleeping with men and fully indulge in the bohemian lifestyle, leaving Alysia to pal around with their roommates (including ones played by Maria Bakalova and Cody Fern) and raise herself with little guidance from her well-meaning but largely absent father.

We follow Alysia into her teenage years and beyond (where she is played by CODA’s Emilia Jones). The father and daughter are somehow both very close, yet distant because she was raised to be independent, and it took, more so than expected. The film uses a variety of gay rights issues as its backdrop (we see posters for Harvey Milk at one point), but the emotional moments truly kick in as the story enters the 1980s and the AIDS crisis, which takes hold in Steve’s circle of friends just as Alysia is headed off to Paris for a semester abroad. Not surprisingly, she’s called back to help her father through the toughest time of his life and give him a little dignity in the process.

As strong as McNairy and Jones are in Fairyland, the story (based on Alysia Abbott’s 2013 memoir) feels underwritten, only hitting the highlights of the father-daughter relationship without really diving in. It seems more interested in making light of Steve’s sexual awakening while beefing up Alysia’s attempt to act like she hates her father’s lifestyle because it ruined her childhood. As a result, the film comes across as manipulative at points, and Alysia isn’t exactly the easiest person to like or identify with. By the end, Fairlyland becomes a story about duty versus emotional ties, and how Alysia struggles with the two. So being asked to take care of the man who didn’t take care of her feels problematic for this young woman, understandably. It’s a movie about being conflicted, so it seems appropriate that I’m also conflicted about whether it’s especially good or not.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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