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Sundance Review: ‘Fairyland’

Scoot McNairy Finally Takes The Lead With Emilia Jones In This Flawed Father/Daughter Tale

Scoot McNairy and Nessa Dougherty appear in Fairyland by Andrew William Durham, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Tobin Yelland

For years, Scoot McNairy has played the supporting man. The dependable, nerdy guy, possibly with a sinister side that helps (or hinders) the lead’s journey towards whatever they are searching for, was his bread and butter.  Since hitting his stride in 2012 with small parts in Killing Them Softly and Argo, he’s worked consistently in Hollywood, most recently on films like C’mon C’mon, Blonde, and Luckiest Girl Alive and miniseries like Godless and The Comey Rule

Fairyland is his first true leading role, playing a gay father who moves his five-year-old daughter (a darling debut from Nessa Dougherty) to 1970s San Francisco after the death of her mother. It’s the perfect vehicle for him as he still can play towards his supporting man strengths while sinking his teeth into a meatier part. 

Giving him this opportunity is first-time filmmaker and writer Andrew Durham. He based his script on Alysia Abbott’s bestselling memoir documenting her life with her father, Steve. With Sofia Coppola as a producer and Emilia Jones (fresh off of last year’s best picture CODA) playing the author, Durham has all the makings of a moving father/daughter love story. 

The first two acts of Fairyland are a dreamy breeze, alternating between sweet quirky moments with laugh-out-loud dialogue and quietly devastating character beats. Playing young Alysia is Nessa Doughtery, who is so enchanting as a child trying to come to terms with her new reality away from home. Watching her interact with her new housemates (Borat’s Maria Bakalova and Ryan Thruston) and her father’s various boyfriends (Adam Lambert and Cody Fern) with childlike wonder is a joy. Her chemistry with McNairy is natural, pulling the film together and propelling it forward. 

McNairy is quietly brilliant, balancing heartbreak and hilarity. He radiates authenticity as a struggling dad and writer trying to live his truth. At the heart of his performance is the idea that parents are people, something that is refreshing to see onscreen. 

Jones steps in to play Alyisa during her tumultuous teenage years and this is where Durham runs into some problems. The entire film’s momentum halts in the third act, especially when the subject of AIDs is introduced. The final 40 minutes are slow as Alysia struggles with her relationship with her father and trying to build her own life. Jones can’t quite handle the emotional weight of the film’s final minutes, the ending falling flat in her hands. 

Despite this, Andrew Durham paints his characters with an empathetic brush. While Steve is selfish, you never doubt his love for his daughter. Durham never truly crosses into melodrama, instead keeping true to the relationship between McNairy and his various onscreen daughters. As the beating heart of Fairyland, Scoot McNairy finally gets his due.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
'Fairyland'
A D.C area native, Cortland has been interested in media since birth. Taking film classes in high school and watching the classics with family instilled a love of film in Cortland’s formative years. Before graduating with a degree in English and minoring in Film Study from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, Cortland ran the college’s radio station, where she frequently reviewed films on air. She then wrote for another D.C area publication before landing at Punch Drunk Critics. Aside from writing and interviewing, she enjoys podcasts, knitting, and talking about representation in media.