(Laura Collyer, US, rated R, 96 mins.)
Sherry in her favorite halter
"Two thumbs up."
-- Ebert & Roeper
"Grade A! A miracle of an actress!"
-- Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
"She's on a fast track to an Oscar nomination!"
-- Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
That's a small sampling of the raves plastered across the DVD case. (Granted, Gleiberman is spelled Gleiverman, but you get the point.) Maggie Gyllenhaal already proved she could carry a film with Secretary (2002), so why didn't SherryBaby open in Seattle in 2006? Is it because the feature isn't quite up to snuff, regardless as to the quality of Gyllenhaal's performance? Or is it something else? After all, the trailer ends with those hopeful words: "Coming soon to theaters everywhere." Yeah, right. Sundance Grand Jury Prize nomination aside, it opened on five screens in the US.
A friend sent me an advance to elicit my opinion. Curious anyway, I was happy to oblige. First of all, I caught three of the pictures Gyllenhaal made last year, Monster House (voice only), Trust the Man, and Stranger Than Fiction (I missed World Trade Center). Trust is weak, but Gyllenhaal does what she can with an underwritten role, while Fiction is quite enjoyable -- and Gyllenhaal's outspoken baker is one of the highlights (more so, for my money, than an uncharacteristically restrained Will Ferrell). Regardless as to the vehicle, Gyllenhaal hasn't let me down yet.
From the team who brought you Fur...
So, what about SherryBaby? Did it deserve a wider release? And is Gyllenhaal's Golden Globe-nominated turn truly "Oscar worthy"? At the very least, I haven't seen her play this character before. Sherry is a bottle blonde former drug addict with a penchant for revealing outfits (foundation garments are her bête noir). Upon her release from prison, she moves into a Newark halfway house and reports to Parole Officer Hernandez (Giancarlo Esposito). He requests that she find a job and allows her to see her five-year-old daughter, Lexi (Ryan Simpkins). Her brother, Bobby (Brad William Henke), and sister-in-law, Lynette (Bridget Barkan), have custody of the girl.
Sherry lost touch with Lexi's father ages ago. In the interim, Bobby and Lynette have come to think of the child as their own. As with 2005's Clean (Olivier Assayas), a superior effort, the rest of the film revolves around the ex-con's shambling attempts to get her life in order, so as to become a full-time mother again. She starts by using sex to get what she wants. It's pretty clear she's operated like that since adolescence. So, the secondary question is this: How long will Sherry continue to debase herself? (And why does she do it anyway?) After all, her brother -- house in the suburbs plus pool -- turned out all right. Once her father, played by Sam Bottoms, enter the scene, the answer to the second question comes into focus...
Of course, there would be no movie if Sherry didn't start to fuck up shortly after re-entering straight society. Her brother, parole officer, and recovery meeting boyfriend, Dean (Danny Trejo), do what they can to help, but it's really up to Sherry, and she's her own worst enemy. Thanks to a sexual favor, however, she does manage to get a coveted job working with children (a development that recalls Half Nelson). A few wrong turns later and the film is over. Sherrybaby is even more inconclusive than Clean, though optimists are likely to find the ending more hopeful than not.
Robert Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo
For the most part, Sherrybaby is Gyllenhaal's show, but that doesn't mean the other actors fail to register. As usual, Esposito is great and the rugged Trejo, an even more unlikely foil than funnyman Ferrell, proves a surprisingly sympathetic co-star. As for Gyllenhaal, she's very good -- and often very nude -- and the film isn't bad, but it felt pretty familiar, even as I sensed a first-time director striving for specificity.
I think there's a simple reason why Sherrybaby failed to secure wider distribution. As Variety's Dennis Harvey puts it, "This unadorned, largely downbeat tale is the kind of starkly realistic, small-scale drama that's always a difficult theatrical sell." Of course, Candy, another indie about addiction, made it to Seattle in 2006 -- all the way from Australia -- but then it followed in the wake of Heath Ledger's highly touted turn in Brokeback Mountain. Clearly, Gyllenhaal isn't considered as much of a box office draw.
And maybe she isn't, which is unfortunate. Either way, she's sure to have a long career ahead of her, so one poorly distributed feature can't exactly be considered a tragedy, and SherryBaby probably wouldn't have set the nation's box office on fire.
But it still seems unfair that it didn't even get the chance to try.
Happy Endings - another great performance
Sherrybaby comes out on DVD on 1/23. I feel the same way about Mike Judge's dystopian satire Idiocracy and Goran Dukic's black comedy Wristcutters: A Love Story, which played at last year's SIFF. Both films have their faults, but deserve better than they've gotten. Judge's live-action follow-up to Office Space hits stores on 1/9. Featuring a rare appearance from Tom Waits, Wristcutters is still seeking theatrical distribution. Here's hoping it has better luck than SherryBaby and Idiocracy.