LSF 2023: ‘Fairyland’ Review: Authentic and Affecting but Potentially Stigmatising

1970s and 80s San Francisco is vividly invoked in a story of a young girl, Alysia Abbott (Emilia Jones) being raised by a gay father,  as he contests discriminatory legislation and endures the eventual Aids pandemic. She is raised with a laissez-faire attitude, allowing him to enjoy the benefits of the San Francisco nightlife. But as she grows up she struggles to keep a hold of her tenuous connection to her father and the city in which she grew up. 

The film paints a dim view of Steve’s parenting techniques. He frequently leaves his daughter alone, sometimes placing her at risk. This neglect is very closely tied to his sexual identity, with his absence and inattentiveness typically attributed to his bohemian lifestyle. The result can almost feel damning, like a conservative portrait of the perils of gay parenthood. 

An early sequence sees the girl led, wide-eyed, through her new home, a near parody of a hippie commune complete with plentiful drugs and passed-out transient strangers in the living room. We experience a child’s perspective of this world and community, sometimes delivered for laughs to a straight-faced grandmother (Geena Davis) who raises an eyebrow at her son-in-law’s antics. The effect can feel very othering. 

This is justified by the film’s subjective point of view; adapting a real memoir. This review is not an attempt to call those experiences into question, merely to question what the value and meaning of those experiences are in the context of this film. Ultimately the film documents Alisha’s journey of acceptance of her father and her childhood, which includes an eventual celebration of the man. But for far too much of the film, her attitude is begrudging of her father’s lifestyle which is portrayed as incompatible with responsible parenting. 

Of course, gay parents are under no special obligation to be better parents than any other parent, and not all portrayals of gay parents must be positive. Many parents justify tough love or absenteeism in the name of supposedly making a child more independent or stronger in the long run. Here though it frequently feels as though value judgements are being made. The happiest time for Alisha is when she escapes “fairyland” and becomes her own person in Paris; her appearance becomes suitably less alternative as she does. Once she is called back to her father’s side, her hair becomes shorter and her happy heteronormative life is put on hold. 

What does work well is the presentation of the city and the time. Grain and faded colours finish the job started by the old American Zoetrope logo at the film’s start. Sofia Coppola lends her name and some of her sensibilities to the project for added legitimacy. The film does feel like a 70s character drama but sometimes the tragedy model attitudes of that decade’s depiction of gay characters persist. 

Performances can be inconsistent but Emilia Jones as the adult manifestation of Alysia succeeds in delivering charisma as a defence against a believable vulnerability. Scoot McNairy meanwhile delivers charm and eccentricity as the troubled father. Fairyland is an earnest account of a difficult childhood and a strained relationship with an elusive father figure. It’s just a shame that the film messaging sometimes feels as misguided as its double-entendre title would suggest. 

Three Stars

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