After serving three years in prison, recovering heroin addict Sherry Swanson (Gyllenhaal) returns to her old New Jersey stomping ground. But the world clearly doesnt owe Sherry as much as she thinks...
SherryBaby would have been a goldleaf-wrapped gift for any upcoming actress. A worthy, none-more-Sundance American indie, it’s the second feature from writer/director Laurie Collyer (whose debut was documentary Nuyorican Dream, about a poverty-stricken Puerto Rican family), based closely on the life of Collyer's childhood friend. Personal and low-budget, the film is by necessity and nature a character-driven piece, every scene hinging on a protagonist who’s flawed, layered and a challenge to render sympathetic. Of course, not every upcoming actress would have been up to the challenge and it’s hard to imagine anyone of her generation that could have better met it than Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Quite simply, the movie is the performance, which is both to Sherrybaby’s benefit and its detriment. Gyllenhaal is downright astonishing. Well, perhaps astonishing’s not the right word - it suggests a showiness and tendency toward scenery-mastication. You get neither with Gyllenhaal, who, nudged along by Collyer’s documentarian instinct and conditioned by a month’s worth of research in halfway-house rehabilitation programs, drug-recovery programs and parole meetings, delivers a quietly impressive, naturalistic turn, easily the best of her career.
We first meet Sherry on the bus back to the outside world. As she stares out through misted glass, emotions clash and flow across her face with barely a flicker of a change in expression. Her mouth sustains a tight-lipped half-smile, suggesting intransigent self-confidence; her too-heavily-shadowed eyes are wide and nervous; her broad, sharp shoulders are tilted forward defensively — although perhaps that’s just because her skimpy top insufficiently protects her from the cold. The character’s all here, in this one display of supremely controlled body language: determined, childish, trashy, prickly — not, frankly, an easy person to like.
Gyllenhaal’s greatest achievement is to maintain our sympathy for Sherry, while never overwhelming us so we fail to see her as do those left to tidy up her mess. Her reunion with her daughter Alexis (Ryan Simpkins) is far from heartwarming — in fact, as she clutches tightly onto the child, the feeling’s more one of disquiet, shared with Alexis’ adopted parents, Sherry’s doughy, ineffectual brother (Brad William Henke) and his brittle wife (Bridget Barkan).
Sadly, Collyer can’t resist that all-too-American desire to reveal the root of Sherry’s fucked-upness and send us, via one brief and disturbing scene, a clear message that Sherry’s problems are not entirely self-inflicted. It’s unnecessary; Gyllenhaal alone is capable of keeping us on her side. And Collyer proves incapable of balancing her preoccupation with this character and performance with the rest of the movie’s elements, most importantly its structure. The plot is too ambling, a loose collection of episodes that skirt around recovering-addict-drama clichés (the support groups, the tumble off the wagon) and feature characters that are merely sketches. Still, the movie is the performance, and with a performance so adept, Sherrybaby remains compelling despite its shortcomings.
Could have been an afternoon movie on Five, but for a career-topping turn from Gyllenhaal.