Review: Sherrybaby (2006)

Director: Laurie Collyer

***

Can anyone can doubt the massive acting talent of Maggie Gyllenhaal? Her ‘aw-shucks’ sensibility and earthy tones coupled with her girl-next-door looks make her instantly likeable, even when she’s playing such a character as Sherry Swanson, the heroine of Laurie Collyer’s Sherrybaby. After a three-year stretch in prison for drugs offences, Sherry is keen to get her life back together, including reconnecting with her young daughter Alexis (Ryan Simpkins).

Collyer’s background is mainly in documentary filmmaking, and this clearly influences her unforced, impressively naturalistic style here. With a lot of handheld shots, the intimacy of this film is key to making it work. As we watch Sherry interact with the fellow residents of the halfway house, her brother and sister-in-law (who are also Alexis’ foster parents) and her parole officer, the awkwardness of Sherry’s character is brought into sharp focus. She is clearly ill at ease with social interaction, and is the product of an unfortunate home life; any scenes with Sherry and her father (Sam Bottoms) are truly uncomfortable. Kudos to Collyer for not pulling back and showing grim (un)reality.

Despite her determination, Collyer cannot overcome one of the big problems with the script: its conventionality. We’ve had films about reformed female crims before (Little Fish) and since (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime), and there’s nothing particularly revelatory about it. While Collyer struggles to deal with this one, the problem of Sherry’s inherent unlikeability is dealt with beautifully. She wants to make things right, but on her terms, and she continuously demands attention/pity from those around her. As mentioned before, Gyllenhaal can make any character sympathetic, and she does so here with a great deal of heart. However, she does retain the childish selfish impulses that make Sherry an annoyance; an impromptu performance of The Bangles’ ‘Eternal Flame’ at a family meal is so awkward as to make you squirm, yet you can’t help but pity this pithy little pile of neuroses. Gyllenhaal makes the film, and lifts it above the norm. Like Secretary, it’s another great Gyllenhaal performance in a film which needed it.

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