Sherrybaby (United States, 2006)
It's a rare thing when an individual performance defines an entire film, but it happens once or twice per year. Such is the case with Sherrybaby, the feature debut of Laurie Collyer. A simple tale of one woman's attempts to re-connect with her young daughter, Sherrybaby is elevated from the level of a TV drama by the sheer force of Maggie Gyllenhaal's portrayal. Gyllenhaal's acting is so visceral that it compels attention.
As the movie opens, Sherry Swanson (Gyllenhaal) has just been released from prison. As a term of her parole, she must live at a halfway house - a lifestyle whose restrictions and compromises don't suit her. Her first goal is to re-connect with her now-eight year-old daughter, Alexis (Ryan Simpkins), who is living with Sherry's brother, Bobby (Brad William Henke), and sister-in-law, Lynette (Bridget Barkan). Things don't go well on the outside for Sherry, and she's on shaky ground almost immediately. Her parole officer (Giancarlo Esposito) is heartless. Her relationship with her daughter is strained and a jealous Lynette places constraints on their interaction (such as insisting that Alexis call Sherry by her name instead of "Mommy"). And her attempts to get a job require dispensing oral sex. All this is enough to challenge Sherry's three-plus drug-free years and make the lure of heroin almost overpowering.
Sherrybaby is not a happy movie, but neither is it a complete downer. It takes this simple story and runs with it, staying largely true to what one might expect in real life (although it stumbles a little toward the end). Collyer never overplays her hand. She doesn't simplify the discomfiture that exists between Sherry and Alexis. She hints at, but doesn't force-feed, a possible explanation for how Sherry became so screwed up. And she develops the relationship between Sherry and fellow Addicts Anonymous member Dean (Danny Trejo) into a believable friends-with-benefits situation rather than a love affair. Dean is not the White Knight who saves Sherry from her demons. That's something she has to do on her own.
Often, no matter how good a portrayal is, we're cognizant on at least some level that we're watching an actor. What differentiates truly great performances from those that are "merely" good is the sense that the actor has fully inhabited the character. From the first frame in Sherrybaby, Maggie Gyllenhaal is Sherry and the illusion never dissipates. Some of the credit must go to Collyer for understanding that this kind of performance demands a low-key screenplay, but Gyllenhaal makes Sherrybaby her calling card as an actress. She has captured our attention before, in movies like Secretary and Stranger than Fiction, but never like this. She abandons herself as Sherry, doing whatever the part requires while baring herself physically and emotionally in front of the camera. There's a lot of nudity in Sherrybaby, but none of it is gratuitous. This is who Sherry is. Gyllenhaal gets it and, as a result, so do we.
The simplicity of Sherrybaby's story allows Gyllenhaal to shine, but there are times when continuity is a problem. Certain scenes seem disconnected with others and there are instances when key moments of exposition are missing. At times, the movie feels less like a cohesive whole and more like a number of individual scenes pieced together without all of the necessary connective tissue in place. Each scene is effective but they don't always mesh.
The central relationship - that between Sherry and Alexis - is presented credibly. For Sherry, the little girl has been her lifeline and the lone reason to get and stay clean. For Alexis, Sherry is a dimly remembered figure from her past. She recognizes her mommy, but Sherry is a less tangible factor in her life than Bobby and Lynette. We understand that Sherry is going about re-connecting with her daughter in the wrong way, but there's no one there to correct her. Bobby's patience, fueled in part by an illicit moment he was not intended to see, allows Sherry some latitude in forging a bond with Alexis. Some of what happens on the road trip near the end feels scripted, but that's the only misstep apparent in the way Collyer fashions the critical interaction between mother and daughter.
It's worth mentioning the poor job done by distributor IFC in getting this film out. Sherrybaby opened in only a handful of theaters despite excellent word-of-mouth from film festivals (it played at both Sundance and Toronto). IFC put little effort behind promoting Gyllenhaal for awards contention, even though her performance is easily on par with that of Helen Mirren in The Queen among the best of 2006. (Gyllenhaal was nominated for a Golden Globe but passed over for an Oscar nod.) Nevertheless, the absence of a golden statuette doesn't change the fact that Maggie Gyllenhaal's work in Sherrybaby has pushed her to the fore of her generation's acting representatives. In large part because of her superb contribution, Sherrybaby is a stirring little film that deserves more attention than it has received.
Sherrybaby (United States, 2006)
Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Brad William Henke, Sam Bottoms, Giancarlo Esposito, Ryan Simpkins, Danny Trejo, Bridget Barkan
Screenplay: Laurie Collyer
Cinematography: Russell Lee Fine
Music: Jack Livesey
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films