Sundance movie review: 'Fairyland' is poignant, if rushed, LGBTQ family drama

Steve (Scoot McNairy) carries Alysia (Nessa Dougherty) on his shoulders in "Fairyland." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
1 of 6 | Steve (Scoot McNairy) carries Alysia (Nessa Dougherty) on his shoulders in "Fairyland." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Jan. 27 (UPI) -- Fairyland, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is a poignant story of a gay father raising his daughter during a historic time in San Francisco. Based on the memoir of Alysia Abbott, the film rushes through history at times, but covers a lot of ground.

Steve Abbott (Scoot McNairy) moves with Alysia (Nessa Dougherty, Emilia Jones) to San Francisco after his wife dies in an automobile accident. Alysia grows up in the gay community of San Francisco, becoming more aware of the political movement as she grows.


Early in the film, magazine covers and newspaper headlines place Steve and Alysia during the time of Anita Bryant and the Jonestown massacre. They also learn about the death of Harvey Milk on the news.

They start hearing about a "gay cancer worse than VD" before it is officially called AIDS. The personal experience of AIDS comes through when Steve visits a hospice patient with lesions, and ultimately Alysia must fill prescriptions for AZT.


At one point Steve and a boyfriend, Charlie (Adam Lambert), start wearing leather as was the style in the early '80s. Alysia experiences catcalls on the street that get more aggressive over the years, which just reflects society as a whole becoming more aggressive.

As quickly as Fairyland covers history, it speeds through Alysia's childhood even faster. Jones takes over when Alysia grows from child to teenager. Then she hits high school graduation, college and a semester in France in rapid succession.

As a single father, Steve struggles to balance parenting with his own needs to find a loving partner. Alysia costs him some dates, and one boyfriend, Eddie (Cody Fern), even leaves because he feels she needs a mother.

Alysia grows up accepting her father is gay, though some concepts remain difficult. As a child, she can't quite reconcile that her mother's death is permanent.

As a teenager, it never clicked with Alysia that it wasn't his heartbreak that made Steve gay. Realizations that Steve was always gay, and her mother knew, remain challenging for both parties, as Steve regrets he wasn't clear enough earlier.

In tense moments, Alysia uses the F word against her father because she knows just how hurtful it is. Alysia grows up as a bit of a latchkey kid when Steve gives her too much independence perhaps too young -- well-intentioned, but misguided.


When Alysia is a child, director Andrew Durham, who also adapted the book, keeps the camera low to capture a child's point of view. Even when Alysia is on screen, the camera points up like a child craning her neck. The camera levels once Alysia is a teenager.

Alysia goes through the roller coaster of adolescence, but comes to a good place. Steve seems like a gentle soul throughout her life.

Steve is a poet and aspiring writer. He is supportive and compassionate and vulnerable, too, but not above snapping in a stressful moment. No one gets through parenthood without snapping occasionally.

Characters from early in the movie show up again in the late '80s in somewhat pat ways, but the reunion is poignant. It's a shorthand for depicting change, but still relevant.

Fairyland is a loving homage to both the Abbott family and the gay community. It could stand to flesh out some of its historical touchstones, but conveys the joys and heartbreaks of living through such a pivotal time.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.


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