Friday, September 08, 2006

Sherrybaby - Movie Review

Sherrybaby 2006

What have we sunk to when the best performance by an American actress so far this year lurks in the shadow of a dismal failure of a movie? Case in point, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s magical star turn in the otherwise abysmal “Sherrybaby”. We understand full well that many critics seem to equate bleak with powerful and squalor with color. We do not.

Sherrybaby” comes fast on the heels of the similar in tone, and equally entrancing star turn by Ryan Gosling in the tired “Half Nelson”. Both feature talented young actors trying their best to add some life and interest into films seeking to challenge the audience by being relentless in tone and passionless in their convictions. While Crack was the Achilles’ Heel for Ryan, Heroin is the fatal flaw for Maggie.

A young woman, fresh from the lock emerges onto the streets of Bleaktown, U.S.A. in search of a halfway home to slump in while she attempts to rebuild a life for herself and her abandoned daughter. The only problems are: the System, her weak will, the reality of minimum wage, the catfighting fellow tenants of said halfway home and her own family. For you see, Sherrybaby’s baby has been taken in by her doting brother and his wife who have attempted to make a home for the waif in lieu of all the drama surrounding her Smack addicted momma.

Throw in a couple of dank dark family secrets and recovering addict boyfriend and you have the makings of . . . well, turns out not much. And for this we must lay the blame on writer / director Laurie Collyer. Now, to be fair to Ms. Collyer, while she may be a novice she knows enough to maintain her equilibrium in composing scenes. Much less can be said for the director of “Half Nelson”. And she certainly has chosen her cast well. While the supporting players feature some talented character actors: namely Kate Burton, Sam Bottoms and Giancarlo Esposito, none of them are allowed to flex their own considerable acting chops in this shallow whirlpool of a storyline.

The scenes amble carelessly and listlessly into each other. Absolutely no dramatic tension is allowed to build as we watch Sherry self destruct. (Unless you count the scene where she dyes her hair . . . by then we had grown to love her acid bleach job.) And ultimately the question arises, why should we care what happens to the lead character of this film if her sole function is to serve as a metaphor for the wrecked system?

There is only one reason to even attempt to care. Her name is Maggie Gyllenhaal. Our future husband’s sister has begun to make a name for herself with some outstanding work, most notably in the high strung entertaining S & M fantasy “Secretary”. We applaud her obvious skill and daring choice of roles, but wish she had a better agent. “Sherrybaby” must have looked like the kind of script that would present a challenging and showy role for a young actress on the rise. But the hardened saucy edge that Maggie brings to the role is the only life to be found in the proceedings.

And she is truly wonderful to behold. Skanking her way through a fantastically dimestore wardrobe that fits her character to a teta, she never once seems to falter. From the slouching attitude, to the take-no-shit glare she delivers throughout we believe in this character. Unfortunately, we don’t really care for her travails. For while the scenes with her daughter are honest in their emotional connection, they make no sense dramatically.

The character of Sherry Swanson has proven time and again to be unfit to support not only herself, but her child as well. The nobility and down to earthiness of her brother and sister-in-law is never called into question. There would be no sane reason to remove this child from her stable home life into the arms of woman who can barely maintain her own equilibrium.

When we meet the loutish father to Sherry and her brother Bobby and his cold fish wife, portrayed honestly enough by Sam Bottoms and Kate Burton we are led to believe that the Swanson children were lucky to escape the clutches of their father relatively intact. But once we discover the deeper and darker secrets to the family’s dysfunction, we can hardly be led to care for the complete lack of dramatic tension and flabby interpretation in which the scene unfolds.

The only scene that worked for us was the careful handling of Sherry’s grossest mistake. Assuming that only she can truly provide for her daughter, she takes her on what is promised to be a day trip which quickly turns into a futile attempt to kidnap the child and start a new life together on the lam. While on a roadside pitstop, Sherry is unable to calm the child’s fears and begins to realize that her mothering skills are probably more suited for maintaining a rubber plant. As the fears and realization wash over Maggie Gyllenhaal’s lovely face, we get the tiniest glimpse of what this film could have been. An examination into a desperate outcast’s life. What we get instead is a gutsy, powerful performance by a skilled young actress that is lost amidst the ramblings of all too earnest but completely unimpressive film. While we would not be surprised to see Miss Gyllenhaal’s name called out during Awards season for her solid turn, it is more of a statement to her talent than an endorsement to see this dreadfully meandering flick. Bless you all!

Written & Directed by Laurie Collyer

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Sherry Swanson
Brad William Henke as Bobby Swanson
Sam Bottoms as Bob Swanson, Sr.
Kate Burton as Marcia
Giancarlo Esposito as Officer Hernandez
Ryan Simpkins as Alexis Parks
Danny Trejo as Dean

Cinematography by Russell Lee Fine
Film Editing by Curtiss Clayton & Joe Landauer
Original Music by Jack Livesey
Production Design by Stephen Beatrice
Costume Design by Jill Newell


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