‘Fairyland’ Review: Moving Memoir of Daughter and Queer Father Hits the Screen With Emotional Heft

Sundance 2023: Scoot McNairy stuns in the lead role of an unconventional dad raising his child in 1970s San Francisco — and facing AIDS in the 80s

Tobin Yelland/Sundance Institute

Scoot McNairy is going to break your heart in Andrew Durham’s debut feature “Fairyland,” produced by Sofia Coppola and adapted from Alysia Abbott’s “Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father.” McNairy stars as Steve Abbott, a writer and widower who packs up his battered red Volkswagen bug and moves his young daughter Alysia (Nessa Dougherty) to San Francisco in the 1970s after the tragic death of his wife in a car accident. 

In San Francisco, Steve can pursue his writing career and a queer lifestyle, all while providing Alysia with a free-wheeling, bohemian and highly independent childhood, one that is creative, honest and lived without shame, in a setting that’s more glam-rock than Summer of Love. However, like most kids and young adults, it will take years for Alysia to come to terms with the unique benefits of growing up in such an unconventional manner. 

Durham takes care to keep the film rooted within Alysia’s point of view: Details about her mother’s death and dad’s relationships are conveyed through conversations that she overhears. Cinematographer Greta Zozula keeps the handheld camera at a low angle to capture the way Alysia sees the world, led up the stairs by their new roommate Paulette (Maria Bakalova) to their new apartment, shared with a cast of colorful characters from drag queens to drug pushers. In some conversations, Zozula and Durham forego a traditional shot-reverse-shot pattern, the camera drifting from one face to another as if mimicking the movement of young Alysia’s eyes. 

Dougherty, in her first film role, is astonishing. Most of what she has to do is observe, absorb and reflect back what she’s taking in, including learning about testicles while observing their roommate — her dad’s lover, Eddie (Cody Fern, “American Horror Story”) — in the bath, or makeup and style tips from Johnny (Ryan Thurston). The adults at her princess birthday party might be tripping on acid, but she’s also surrounded with love. Her dad just doesn’t want her to repeat all the gory details on the phone to her grandmother Munca (Geena Davis).

That’s not to say that it’s all rainbows and angel-dust–frosted cupcakes all the time; there are moments of danger and light neglect when young Alysia is wandering alone around the city (instructed by her father to take the city bus home from school because he has a workshop) or sitting at home alone watching horror movies while her dad is out at the bars. “I’m teaching you independence,” he declares when young Alysia protests. 

These early childhood scenes are shot on grainy 16mm and have an almost elliptical quality, like snatches of memory patch-worked together — an image here, an overheard conversation there, a joke, a memorable breakfast, a harrowing situation, an argument, a kind gesture creating the quilt of Alysia’s younger days. It’s dreamy, somewhat surreal, and feels all too short, like most childhoods. 

Steve is honest with Alysia, to a fault, reading her love poems about Eddie, bringing her to his poetry readings, treating her like a friend and confidant. “You were a precocious child,” he says to her later, as they look at an old photograph. “And you were a childish adult,” she replies, explicating their relationship as equals, two individuals coming of age together, at the same time, though one was the parent and one was the child. 

Emilia Jones (the “CODA” star is also represented at Sundance with “Cat Person”) portrays teen and young adult Alysia, who is mature only in her confidence to navigate city life in the ‘80s easily, and the film’s style grows up along with her, foregoing the aesthetic of hazy memories for a more grounded look. 

But Alysia is all teen, insecure and resentful about her “independent” upbringing and her father’s queerness, hiding it from her friends, which is in stark contrast to Steve’s willingness to share every aspect of his life with her. Giving into the terrible instincts of her teenage punk friends, she hurls a slur at Steve and his boyfriend Charlie (Adam Lambert), on the day of the Pride parade no less. When your home life has no boundaries, how does a teen test them? 

As Alysia stretches her wings beyond the Mission and into the grand possibilities of her life that stretches out before her — college at NYU, a semester abroad in Paris — the AIDS epidemic, which has been encroaching on the edges of their reality, comes home to roost. She has to return to San Francisco to care for her father. Though she protests she’s not ready, he reminds her that neither was he when she was a child. 

Writer-director-producer Durham has a personal take on this story, having also cared for his gay father dying of AIDS-related complications in San Francisco, and the third act of “Fairyland” is utterly heartbreaking in its honesty of that depiction. But don’t be surprised if the tears start to flow much earlier than that, especially if one of your cry-triggers is daddy-daughter relationships.

McNairy has always been one of our best character actors, most often seen in supporting roles, but he has never been better than as Steve Abbott: a playful, always funny, wise, and deeply yearning man; an open book and a mystery to his daughter at the same time. McNairy lays bare the beauty, the vulnerability, the honesty and the reality of this man. He has quirks and faults, but when Steve asks Alysia if he was a good parent, she replies, “Of course, you are a good parent. Why would you ask that?”

We’re so aligned with Alysia’s perspective that we grow along with her to discover that the things that made her childhood so unusual are what made it so special. Though there are a few clunky or obvious monologues in the script (perhaps the hazard of adapting a memoir), the emotion and intention behind the story, as well as McNairy’s career-best performance, make “Fairyland” an astonishingly moving film and touching remembrance. 

“Fairyland” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.