For my final film of the excellent early summer surprise that was NewFest Pride, Andrew Durham’s depressing AIDS-era drama Fairyland fit the bill. This queer movie features two harrowing lead performances from Scoot McNairy and Emilia Jones, and enough tragedy and melodrama to comply with any generic LGBT+ criteria. Written and directed by Andrew Durham, Fairyland is a competently made tearjerker that unfortunately never rises to the ultimate sum of its parts.
Based on the memoir by Alysia Abbott, Fairyland recounts Alysia (Jones) and the complicated relationship she had with her bisexual father, Steve (McNairy). As the film begins, the two are struggling with the recent loss of Alysia’s mother. The grieving process affects both of them in somewhat similar ways; though Alysia is a child, she only wants to go home to see her mom again. Steve must explain more than once that her mother is gone for good. He is forced to instill into Alysia what death means. As if growing up without a motherly figure wouldn’t already be challenging enough, father and daughter relocate immediately after the death to quaint gay Mecca, San Francisco.
Growing up in the 70s and 80s is not without its challenges. For one, having a queer father proves difficult to manage for Alysia. Everyone around her seems so concerned with her father’s sexuality, while Alysia just wants to be a normal young girl. She walks in on one of her father’s flings, a flirty younger man named Eddie (Cody Fern), as he is bathing—in this way, not only does she learn what balls are, but that they “help make babies.” Their home is filled with various personalities and brimming with different types of figures to influence Alysia.
The time period aesthetics are great here. Between the shaggy clothing and dropping of LSD onto tongues, Fairyland immerses viewers into the hippie lifestyle. Different people drift in and out of Alysia’s life as we watch her grow up before our eyes. Adam Lambert and Geena Davis have the most memorable supporting roles of the bunch. Messages of love and acceptance will resonate from less picky viewers. I tend to wish they did not fall so noticeably into Lifetime-movie territory. Too often, Fairyland feels like it is going through the motions in checking off boxes rather than telling an essential story.
At a certain point, dwelling in the grimy atmosphere of the AIDS crisis just means watching all the characters die before us one by one. When done correctly, AIDS stories can be very moving. Too often Fairyland confuses emotionally gripping with emotionally manipulative. Showing patients suffering is one thing, but needlessly prolonging what is happening and spelling out every little thing seems a bit cloying to me. Despite committed performances from McNairy and Jones and some really great writing, Fairyland fails to fully take flight.
Fairyland screened at 2023’s NewFest Pride.