“We felt like a family” is a sentiment often voiced by actors about smooth productions. But when the filmmaker Trey Edward Shults says the same about “Krisha,” his debut feature film, he’s just stating facts. His mother, aunts and even grandmother all star in the film — as does he.
“I look like Krisha and my mom, so I just figured I had to step up and do it because it wouldn’t make sense otherwise,” Mr. Shults said recently in a Skype interview from Florida.
What might sound like a recipe for frustration (or madness) produced an acclaimed psychodrama, which last month won the John Cassavetes prize (for a feature made for under $500,000) at the Independent Spirit Awards. The plot outline of the film, which opens Friday, March 18, resembles a typical Thanksgiving homecoming disaster movie. The title character, an aging recovering alcoholic, attends the family feast after long estrangement from her son (played by Mr. Shults), only to find that her demons have come with her.
Expressionist camerawork, foreboding music and sound design, and suspenseful pacing all distinguish the film. But Mr. Shults’s casting of family members — and chronicling of trauma — gives “Krisha” a special energy.
“Trey took a done-to-death subject and made it fresh and compelling,” Janet Pierson, the head of South by Southwest Film, where “Krisha” was first shown last March, wrote in an email. After winning the Grand Prize there, it played at the Cannes Film Festival, drawing raves from critics.
Mr. Shults, 27, joins a number of filmmakers who have cast family. John Huston directed his father Walter in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and daughter Anjelica in the James Joyce adaptation “The Dead.” The horror legend Dario Argento repeatedly put his daughter Asia through the wringer. And among recent little-indies-that-could, the filmmaker Nathan Silver often casts his mother, Cindy.
For Mr. Shults, the relations are further complicated by the film’s story, which is based on wrenching family history. The character of Krisha — played by his aunt Krisha Fairchild — draws on the pasts of two key figures. Mr. Shults’s alcoholic biological father separated from his mother and was eventually absent from his life for many years. Another aunt, Nica, was addicted to drugs and estranged from her children, ultimately dying of an overdose. She used to visit them during Thanksgiving, and on one fateful visit, she showed up intoxicated.
“She had what we called ‘The Look,’ ” Ms. Fairchild said via Skype from her home in Mexico. “We knew she was high. She walks into the kitchen and she doesn’t pick up potholders and she opens the oven and reaches in to check on the turkey.”
The incident inspired a key scene in the film, and for Mr. Shults, the indelible memory of that Thanksgiving demanded an especially memorable rendering in his film.
“For this woman, it’s going to be one of the most important days in her life, and one she always remembers,” he said. “So I wanted to feel that cinematically and be really ambitious with that.”
Other occurrences from the family’s life have been reworked in the film, and so have the participants’ roles. In real life, Krisha Fairchild took care of Nica’s son, Israel, during his mother’s struggles with drugs. In the film, she plays Krisha, a character based on Nica. And Mr. Shults’s mother, Robyn Fairchild, takes up the surrogate caretaker role that Krisha Fairchild lived.
“It was very, very personal, but it was very cathartic for all of us,” Robyn Fairchild, a psychotherapist, said of the filming. Mr. Shults plays Krisha’s son — Trey. His grandmother, who suffered from substance abuse, also appears in the film, as does another of Mr. Shults’s aunts, Vicki.
Mr. Shults began making videos as a child in Texas. After attempting business school, he worked on shoots for the director Terrence Malick. In 2014, at SXSW, he showed a short film, also titled “Krisha” and starring members of his family. An attempt at a feature that was ultimately derailed by exhaustion and limited resources, it was well received.
His new version of “Krisha,” was made in nine days for under $100,000 in his family’s house, where Mr. Shults was already living, in Montgomery, Tex., outside Houston. The cast bunked there during shooting.
“As soon as I started writing, I started planning out all the shots and the structure and how we would do this,” Mr. Shults said. “It was the only house I would make the movie at.” He wrote the screenplay after Nica’s death in 2011. (He wrote his next film, part of a two-picture deal with A24 Releasing, after visiting his biological father on his deathbed. )
Mr. Shults’s memories affected his direction of “Krisha” in specific ways. One of Krisha’s meltdowns restages the filmmaker’s experience witnessing Nica’s son Israel react to his mother’s behavior. For the comparable scene in “Krisha,” the camera was placed in the spot where Mr. Shults had watched the incident.
Other touches of authenticity in the film extended to production and costume design: family albums, a VHS tape of the filmmaker, Krisha’s locket, even a canister containing the ashes of their grandfather. (He was an escaped P.O.W. in World War II; “Krizia” was the name of the daughter in a family who hid him.)
Helping to balance all this was an outsider, the actor Bill Wise. He had appeared in another Texas family affair, “Boyhood,” directed by Richard Linklater and starring Mr. Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei. In “Krisha,” he plays Uncle Doyle, an ornery straight shooter who hangs out with Krisha.
“There needed to be someone else — this redneck Grecian chorus — who’s involved in their trials and travails,” Mr. Wise said in a phone interview, comparing “Krisha” to other productions he has worked on. “As a lost Thanksgiving weekend with a family, nothing else rang true for me to this degree.”
Krisha Fairchild too has an acting background, dating back to the 1970s. Dissatisfaction with Hollywood led her to leave early on. Moving to Hawaii, she picked up what roles came to her and spent 10 years raising Israel. “Krisha” provided a rare chance at carrying a movie.
“I was worried whether I could still play her and come back to ‘me,’” Krisha Fairchild said.