304 – Sherrybaby

Here’s what I liked about Sherrybaby:

1. Maggie Gyllenhaal gives an effective, appealing performance and gets somewhat naked.
2. The movie manages to just avoid happily-ever-after cliches.
3. There are subtle hints to the backstory rather than obvious manipulations.

But it’s not really enough. There are plenty of scenes in the movie that just seem to lag a bit as if something might poke through the ennui and stir things up, but not really. So color this one as a half-step above the usual woman-making-it-right-when-she’s-done-so-wrong movie. But only a half-step.

Sherry Swanson (Gyllenhaal) is out of prison after doing a stretch for robbery and drugs and basic slutty, scummy behavior. We first see her arrive at the halfway house at which she’s to spend the rest of her sentence. Ah, she’s finally out, and she’s going to do the right thing this time, you’ll see! You can almost see her eyes twinkle.

Sherry has a daughter she hasn’t seen since she was in stir, named Alexis. Alexis has been cared for lo these many years by Sherry brother Bob and his wife Lynnette. Bob picks Sherry up at the halfway house and brings her to his house for the reunion, and of course Alexis is excited to see a new person who smothers her in attention. But it’s not long before young Alexis is calling her “Sherry” instead of “Mommy,” which Sherry takes as a sign that Bob and Lynnette are trying to take her baby away from her. (As if they needed to try; Sherry’s not gonna get custody anytime soon.)

Sherry also tangles with her parole officer, played with some gusto by Giancarlo Esposito, who isn’t going to cut her much slack. Which is just as well, because pretty much every other guy in the movie somehow succumbs to Sherry’s charms and does what she wants. It’s when she doesn’t get her way that things go all pissy. See, Sherry’s not really what you’d call proactive; she expects things to work out for her without her doing any of the work. So, to speed things along, she takes certain immoral shortcuts. In fact, after watching the first thirty minutes or so, I thought I’d put in a porno by mistake. I mean, I thought I’d been sent the wrong disk by Netflix. Yeah, that. Anyway, the pattern seemed to be: 1) Decide to do something. 2) Approach male who could facilitate that. 3) Have sex with male. 4) Repeat if necessary.

So far, so good – Sherry isn’t a completely new person when she emerges from the clink, and that at least feels realistic, because how often are ex-cons completely rehabilitated and never do anything wrong, ever again? Probably not very many. Forget recidivism, because that includes only those who got caught. At any rate, Sherry’s still a slut. And prone to profanity, as she doesn’t mind dropping f-bombs in front of her kid, who she’s trying to win over.

Then you have the eventual relapse, and visits to a support group, and new friends. But this isn’t a hugs-and-kisses kind of movie – even though Sherry holds hands with everyone in the group and pledges to be free of her demons, we all know she might never, and we question her committment to same. That’s fine, because in reality it’s an extremely difficult undertaking, and to me if she’d overcome everything too easily, all similarity to reality would be out the door. But director Laurie Collyer played it straight, giving the film a good boost of authenticity. To add to the subtleties, there’s this barely hinted at sexual abuse angle; it’s well played and well written and very effectively attempts to explain why Sherry is who she is without beating you over the head with the information.

Movies like this usually aren’t my bag at all. If I wanted to see a movie about a bad girl making her way in the world, I’d turn on Lifetime. Oh, sure, I know there’s an audience for strong, independent women, but clearly I’m not it. So I didn’t expect this to be all that wonderful; I’d just heard that Gyllenhaal was good in it. And I like her. And she was. Plus, she got naked! So, for those positives, it’s not too bad of a movie. A bit grim in spots, and it’s very gritty – drug use, sex, language all make appearances. Still, it IS a well-made film about a strong, independent woman who doesn’t have all of the answers.

**1/2

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