Told from the perspective of a young girl raised by her single gay father to be a woman “strong and tolerant and unafraid of this world.” Wonderland reveals the intensely personal nature of its origins in Alysia Abbott’s 2013 memoir at every step of the characters’ complicated evolution together. Like that sometimes tense relationship, this feature debut from photographer Andrew Durham often feels stuck, but ultimately reaches its destination with clear compassion and an emotionally powerful reconciliation. Those qualities are captured with tremendous sensitivity in the lead roles of Emilia Jones and Scoot McNairy.


With a producing team led by Sofia Coppola for American Zoetrope, this is a bittersweet drama about unconventional parenting and alternative families that will resonate loudest with LGBTQ audiences. But the wave of feeling in the final act will appeal to any audience that has ever experienced the startling reckoning that comes with grief.



It comes down to

Not always sure, but eventually it will.

Event venue: Sundance Film Festival (premieres)
Form: Emilia Jones, Scoot McNairy, Geena Davis, Cody Fern, Adam Lambert, Maria Bakalova, Nessa Dougherty, Ryan Thurston, Bella Murphy, Isabella Peregrina, Ben Attal, Cabe Thompson, Roman Gonzalez
Director-screenwriter: Andrew Durham, based on the book by Alysia Abbott Fairyland: a memoir of my father

1 hour 54 minutes


The film opens in 1974 with a middle of the night phone call where a stunned Steve (McNairy) learns that his wife died in a head-on collision with a truck while driving with a patient she had been treating for suicidal depression. . That detail will prove important later on.


Steve’s 5-year-old daughter Alysia (Nessa Dougherty) is still struggling to understand her mother’s sudden absence when he takes them from the Midwest to San Francisco in his beat-up orange VW Beetle. He rejects the suggestion of Alysia’s judicious maternal grandmother, nicknamed Munca (Geena Davis), that the girl would be better off being raised by her side of the family.


Alysia gets an instant eye-popping education when they move into a shared house with drug-addicted mother Paulette (Maria Bakalova), genderqueer Johnny (Ryan Thurston), and laid-back, guitar-plucking southerner Eddie (Cody Fern), who sits on the couch. but has a wife back in Jackson. That doesn’t stop him from falling into bed with Steve, a development that Alysia seems to pick up on with the same mix of curiosity and supernatural maturity she brings to each magical discovery of the partying bohemian household.


In a funny phone call where Munca grills her about life in San Francisco, Alysia talks enthusiastically about her new surrogate family and mentions her bond with Johnny, who wears dresses. “Does your dad wear dresses too?” her grandmother asks, visibly stiffening. “Not anymore. He’s butch now,” Alysia replies cheerfully.


The choice to have cinematographer Greta Zozula film the first scenes in grainy 16mm adds to the vibrant sense of time and place, idyllically rendered by frequent visits to Golden Gate Park, with its Dutch windmill and Victorian conservatory. Steve, Eddie and Alysia are seamlessly integrated into rousing archive footage of the Castro as a village full of gay men and early Pride parades, when the event was called Gay Freedom Day.


Bringing a writer’s work to life with any sort of vitality can be difficult even for seasoned filmmakers, and Durham struggles a bit to make Steve’s development as a poet and essayist a dynamic part of the story.


Some of the cultural context also feels a bit clunky when interwoven through radio newscasts — the Proposition 6 ballot initiative that sought to ban gays and lesbians from working in California public schools; the murder of Harvey Milk; Anita Bryant’s crusade against homosexuality, her role with the Florida Citrus Commission led Steve to snatch the OJ from the breakfast table.


The film finds itself on more stable ground as the focus remains tight on Steve and Alysia’s shifting relationship, especially as it heads into her high school years, when Jones steps into the role. While young Alysia seems unfazed by the steady stream of her father’s boyfriends following Eddie’s return to Mississippi – one of the longer term matches, Charlie, is played with warmth and humor by Adam Lambert – teenage Alysia begins to withdraw.


At the time, Alysia is a Brit pop-loving hipster in Depeche Mode and OMD, rocking asymmetrical hair and outsized coats. (Jones is beautiful in these scenes and remembers a young Winona Ryder.) But Alysia gets a little less cool about her dad’s sexuality just as the first murmurs about a “gay cancer” start circulating. When she goes to clubs or thrift stores with her best friends Yayne (Bella Murphy) and punky Skid (Isabella Peregrina), Alysia says nothing about the latter’s constant homophobic jokes and keeps them both at a distance from Steve.


However, the real conflict between them is less about Steve being gay than about him not being older enough. He romanticizes the artist’s poverty while his daughter wants more comfort. And while he’s convinced that making her self-reliant from a young age would help Alysia figure out who she is, she comes to resent that she’s been given too much independence and too little parental attention. She is also angry because he shares private details of their lives in poetry readings, including things about her mother that Alysia was too young to understand at the time.


No doubt based on Abbott’s memoir, Durham deserves credit for refusing to idealize Alysia’s countercultural upbringing as a perfect balance. But there are poignant moments when Steve defends himself and tells her that she has different freedoms than he had at her age, when he had to pretend to be someone else.


Their relationship becomes more distant when Alysia attends NYU and then spends a year studying in Paris, where she gets her first serious relationship with sweet-natured Frenchman Theo (Ben Attal). But during visits to San Francisco, she witnesses the ravages of AIDS at a time when the Reagan administration is doing nothing about it. Reality becomes especially confronting when she meets JD (Cabe Thompson), a sick young man who is being cared for by her father at a community hospice.


Many of the stories tend to saunter without much focus, viewed through the haze of nostalgia and graced with appropriate needle drops. But a deeper feeling sets in once Alysia receives the inevitable phone call calling her home from France to take care of her father.


The pathos and intimacy of that latter installment is no doubt heightened by the close parallels between Abbott’s experience and that of writer-director Durham, who also grew up in San Francisco during the same period with a gay father, who moved in to care for him through the latter months of his life.


A quietly searing scene between Jones and Bakalova, when Paulette has left her partying days behind and gone to work as a pharmacist, opens Alysia’s eyes completely to the heartbreaking reality of living in a tight-knit community where friends are constantly dying. And on a rare trip to the park where they spent so much of their early days together, Steve forces himself to shake off the pain and confusion of an advanced illness long enough to explain to Alysia that he had no idea how he to be a single parent. He deduces that his stalled life as a gay man means that, in a way, he came of age at the same time as his daughter.