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“Fairyland” Delves Deeply Into the Tragedy of the AIDS Crisis


From left, Scott McNairy, Andrew Durham, Nessa Dougherty, and Emilia Jones attended of the premiere of “Fairyland” at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Jemal Countess

By Vanessa Zimmer

Emilia Jones, who signed and sang her way through the Oscar- and Festival-winning (Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2021 event) CODA, takes on another emotional family-dynamics role in Fairyland, which opened to an appreciative audience Friday, January 20, at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

The Fairyland story, based on the 2013 memoir by Alysia Abbott, is set in the San Francisco of the 1970s and ’80s, in the days of Anita Bryant vs. gays and lesbians, the assassination of openly gay city official and activist Harvey Milk, and the raging AIDS crisis.

After his wife is killed in a car accident, writer and poet Steve Abbott takes his 5-year-old daughter, Alysia (Nessa Dougherty), from the Midwest to San Francisco for a fresh start. They move into a house already occupied by several others, including a guy who sleeps on the couch, a young woman who seems to float through another reality, and a very kind man who wears dresses. Alysia’s room has a bare mattress on the floor. And Daddy starts dating men.

The 20-year-old Jones plays Alysia Abbott as a teenager and college student, loving and protective of her father, angry at his definition of independence as she was growing up, and yet anxious to own her life.

Matching her performance every step of the way is Scoot McNairy as Steve Abbott, who considered Alysia’s mother his best friend and the woman who captured his heart. But now, though he loves Alysia beyond words, he is just as anxious to be true to his own sexuality.

Writer-director Andrew Durham, in his debut feature, re-creates the bohemian feel of San Francisco, partly through the use of archival footage, in this exploration of the meaning of family. He also captures the utter heartbreak of AIDS sufferers, which was dismissed by so many outside the gay community at the time. 

At the Q&A on the stage following the premiere, Durham said he was interested in tackling the film because he grew up in San Francisco during that period, and his father was gay. Under the constraints of a super-tight budget, Durham shot the entire film in 23 days. 

The crew had a single day of access to shoot scenes in Golden Gate Park. The time lapse of the story meant the characters involved in each scene had to transform from the ’70s to the ’80s, complete with hair and makeup changes, and, in the case of Alysia, an entirely different actor.

Young Nessa Dougherty, with Jones’ arms wrapped around her shoulders on the stage, declared her happiness with the role: “It was exciting and it was fun.” She also proudly announced she has gotten another film role because of her performance, and the crowd applauded. 

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