We generally use the word “formulaic” as a negative in describing story-telling, but people use formulas because they often work far better than the alternative. We underestimate how difficult it is to create a completely original story that’s balanced and flows well. Breaking out of a pattern can be innovative – even revolutionary – and can be a way to move your audience in new ways. Or, abandoning a formula to color outside the lines can be a real garbage fire. In the case of Krystal, we’re talking about the latter.
The plot of this movie is simple at its core, but it spirals out to become increasingly bizarre. The basic premise starts with Taylor (Nick Robinson), a pretentious yet precious teenager with I guess some kind of heart condition. He becomes obsessed with Krystal (Rosario Dawson), an adult woman who mostly has her shit together and who helps him with a medical crisis. Taylor’s family is conventional but creative: his brother (Grant Gustin) is an artist, his father (William H. Macy) is an acclaimed writer, his mother (Felicity Huffman) is a poet, and Taylor himself works at an art gallery run by a character played by Kathy Bates. By contrast, Krystal is the working class single mother of a teenager two years younger than Taylor. She’s also a recovering addict, which leads to Taylor following her to an AA meeting and pretending to be in recovery as well. The film becomes increasingly imbalanced as the two pseudo-explore a relationship between him, a barely adult completely oblivious to his own immaturity, and her, a woman working to navigate a variety of serious challenges. Which include being stalked by an abusive ex, by the way. Also, he sees demons for some reason. So that’s also a thing that’s happening in this “comedy.”
You’d be forgiven for expecting better given the caliber of talent associated with this film. Bates, Macy, and Huffman are all big deal award winners, Dawson has been beloved for decades, and even Robinson is having a moment as the lead in current seasonal favorite Love, Simon. But Macy is directing as well, and as his experience on that side of the camera is considerably lighter, he seems not to know quite what to do with his top-notch cast. I’d argue that Bates and Huffman (Macy’s real-life wife) are underused, except that I fear the alternative is that they get the same treatment as Dawson, who has ample screen time to remind us how much better she is than the film itself. Incidentally, it’s probably not a coincidence that the most interesting characters – Taylor’s brother Campbell, Krystal’s son Bobby (Jacob Latimore), and William Fichtner as a disaster of a doctor – are those on whom the film spends the least time.
There is a feeling throughout Krystal that both Macy and writer Will Aldis were trying to shoehorn interesting things into what is actually a surprisingly boring story. Their vision might be reminiscent of the Coen brothers, but the reality is something very different. As it turns out, a talented cast and a collection of promising concepts doesn’t add up to an engaging film, and eccentric is nowhere near the same thing as interesting.