Saturday, September 11, 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies: "SherryBaby"

Welcome to "Saturday Night at the Movies," a weekly feature in which I recommend an older title that you can go watch, right this very minute (provided you have Netflix Instant).

Sherry Swanson is just out of prison. A reformed heroin addict, she tries to go back to New Jersey and get her life together; specifically, she wants to be a good mother to her daughter Alexis, who has been raised by her brother Robert and sister-in-law Lynette. She talks tough and doesn’t suffer fools; she also knows how to get what she wants, as evidenced by the scene where she offers a placement agent oral sex in exchange for the job she wants. So, yeah, reformed but… still with some problems.

As played by Maggie Gyllenhaal in a scorching, Oscar-worthy performance, Sherry is a tough centerpiece to build your film around; she’s not terribly likable, she’s blatantly manipulative, and she is, in many ways, still a spoiled child who wants what she wants without having to, as more than one character tells her, “do the work.” But you can’t take your eyes off her.

Which is a good thing, because so much of Sherrybaby has been told before that the film all but rests on the electricity of her performance. To be sure, the film is not just about that performance—the direction (by documentarian Laurie Collyer) is remarkably attentive to detail, and the cast is bursting with terrific character actors (Giancarlo Esposito, Sam Bottoms, Brad William Henke, and the always valuable Danny Trejo). But as startling and fascinating a character is Sherry is, her story is predictable, and the film ultimately is as well.

But damnit, what a performance it is. There is something unsettling about it—Gyllenhaal is so believable, in fact, that she is hard to watch in places. Most of those places occur in her relationships with her daughter and the rest of her family; there are few things more wince-inducing than the sight of someone trying too, too hard (understand, that is the character who is trying too hard—Gyllenhaal never reaches for effect). 

In a perfectly realized scene early in the film, Sherry is reunited with her daughter at her brother’s house; it is awkward for everyone. Alexis, the daughter, reflexively goes to jump on the couch for attention, though she is promptly scolded by her aunt. A few scenes later, Sherry and Robert’s dad (Bottoms) and stepmother come over for a visit, and Sherry is desperate for his attention and approval—so much so that, as he hugs her daughter, Sherry steals her move and stands on the couch. It’s a quick moment, and isn’t dwelled on, but it speaks volumes.

Later, the extended family enjoys a dinner, which Sherry all but wrecks by insisting that she sings a song for her daughter. She stands and launches into a slightly off-key a capella rendition of the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame.” The awkwardness is palpable. She says it is for Alexis, and maybe it is, but there is still that feeling that she is looking for the approval of the others at the table, especially daddy.

The brilliance of Gyllenhaal’s work lies in her understanding, and highlighting, of that dichotomy. We see the tough, shit-talking, cocky woman, but we also get a glimpse or two, here or there, of the wounded child underneath. Sherry knows how to use sex; indeed, it seems about the only way she can communicate. There’s not just the employment bribe or her physical relationship with a would-be sponsor (Trejo, in his best performance to date); she sizes up the guy who calls the shots at her halfway house and nails him immediately, and even makes an attempt (perhaps not unwelcome) to flirt with her sister-in-law to ease their tension. There is an explanation provided for her sexualization, and while it will surprise absolutely no one who has seen other, similar movies, it will also surprise no one who has known anyone like Sherry.

Sherrybaby is a low-key, matter-of-fact telling of her story, and that is both its blessing and its curse. The naturalistic telling and flat, realistic style separate it from the typical “gritty” Hollywood tale of addiction. However, it also keeps the audience at a distance; we are involved in Sherry’s story, and while we are kept close to her, we’re never really allowed an emotional investment, and therefore deprived of an emotional release. The more conventional tellings of this kind of story, like Clean and Sober or Permanent Vacation, might have been slicker, but they also took greater pains to let us in, and occasionally moved us as a result.

-originally written  10/06

"SherryBaby" is available on DVD and via Netflix Instant Viewing.

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