SherryBaby (2006) is a first feature from writer/director Laurie Callyer,
and another great vehicle for Maggie Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal plays Sherry,
just paroled after serving three years for robbery to support her drug
habit. We learn that she grew up with a sexually abusive father, and worked
as a stripper at 16. The father of her baby was also in prison, but escaped
and is missing. Her stated goal, to control her life and win her daughter
back both physically and emotionally, is a wonderful sentiment, but she is
still a flawed character. Meanwhile, her brother and sister-in-law have been
raising her daughter for three years, and do not want to let go.
Sherry is not an altogether unsympathetic character, but you want to
reach through the screen and slap her upside the head for some of her
choices. She is quick to give sexual favors to get her way, such as giving a
blow job for a shot at a job she wants. She has anger issues. It is clear
that she really wants to get involved in drugs again. She is also drinking.
She clearly thinks that wanting things should be enough to get them. True
to real life, the film ends without Sherry reaching redemption, although she
is taking a step on the right path.
Maggie Gyllenhaal not only delivers a wonderful performance, but hauls
out her breasts and buns several times. You will want to see this for the
nudity and an excellent performance by Gyllenhaal, but it is not a feel-good
Just out of prison after three years and hoping to reconnect with a daughter
who is being raised by her brother and his wife, Sherry really seems like a good
person at heart. Unlike most junkies we see in films, Sherry is not a jaded,
calloused, world-weary soul. She loves children and genuinely enjoys working
with them. She relates very well to her own daughter and really listens to what
she has to say. The problem is that
Sherry herself is still a child. Her body may say "late twenties," but she has
the emotional development of a 14-year-old. When the family gathers at her dad's
house, Sherry is jumping up and down on the couch, drawing attention to herself.
When they sit down for a meal, Sherry insists on performing an unsolicited song,
again drawing attention to herself. She is consistently immature in her approach
to every situation, and that creates the film's central dynamic. Because she is
basically so ingenuous and really wants to be a better person, we really want her to succeed. Because she is basically
so immature, we know she probably won't.
When Sherry gets out of prison on parole (with a perfect tan, by the way), her curfew prevents her from
establishing a proper connection with her daughter, and she seems about to be
shuttled off into a dreary factory life which will undoubtedly drive her back
into drug use. That's the grim reality of people trying to reestablish a life
after prison, and those are the rules. Sherry takes the bull by the horns, or
rather by the penis, and uses her sexuality to change the rules. She has sex
with the manager of the halfway house, which gets her some latitude on her
curfew; then she gives a blowjob to her employment counselor, which gets her
assigned to a daycare center instead of a factory. The critical reactions to this scene were fascinating. Many condemned her
behavior and cited these instances as proof that she always takes the easy way
out and is not willing to pay the real price to get what she wants. Others cited
the same events as proof that Sherry is willing to do whatever is necessary to
get a decent job and be close to her daughter. I fell more into the latter camp.
If you remove your own preconceived morality from the situation and see it
through Sherry's eyes, you can evaluate what she did pragmatically. She is
trained to be a daycare worker and she loves children. In order to get the
daycare job, all she has to do is give one guy some head. If she does not give
the blow job, she will spend the rest of her life on an assembly line. From her
perspective, the price is very low, and the reward is very high. If one
withholds moral judgment, Sherry is the feisty outsider who has found a way to
beat an oppressive system.
The problem is that she doesn't know when it's time to stop fighting the
system and start joining it. Once she gets everything lined up in her favor, she
wants to keep taking short cuts to solve the problems that inevitably arise. Her
brother and his wife have been raising the little girl as their own, and they
are understandably worried about the impact of Sherry's re-emergence in the
girl's life, given that Sherry is a promiscuous, immature junkie and is on
parole for armed robbery. Unable to consider their point of view, Sherry is
offended by their attempts to restrict her access to the girl, and by the fact
that her sister-in-law instructs the girl to call Sherry "Sherry" instead of
"mommy." Perhaps the brother and his wife made some mistakes and perhaps they
should have discussed a parenting strategy with Sherry, but they acted out of
concern for the child's welfare. Sherry couldn't or wouldn't understand that.
She wanted to short-cut the relationship with her daughter the same way that she
was able to short-cut the curfew and the job interview. She doesn't seem capable
of grasping the difference between the situations, or reasoning that some
problems have instant solutions while others take time. She's not capable of
thinking that she just needs to sit down with her family, discuss the situation
rationally and create a mutually agreeable plan. Her only reaction is to fly off
the handle and overreact to her family, as if the entire situation were about
her own short-term emotional needs and not the long-term welfare of her child.
By the way, didn't I already see this same movie last year with Vera Farmiga? I thought
it was called Down to the Bone then. When you first read about Sherrybaby, you
wonder if it is one of those genre parodies, using the core story of Down to
the Bone as the central focus, and targeting "indie films" as the genre to be
lampooned. It could be called something like "My Big Fat Sundance Movie." Heroin
addict: check. Sexual adventurer: check. Betrayed as a child: check.
Hey, where's the pudding and the cowboy hats?
Although the film does have a "made for Sundance" quality about it, the one
thing that raises this story above the usual, predictable indie level is that
the script gets the most important thing right: it gets the audience rooting for
Sherry to kick her jones and reunite happily with her family. We really want her
to do better, and we rejoice with her when she seems to make some progress.
That's the good news. The bad news is that she's not a very good horse for us to
bet on. She's a real long shot, so our hopes for her are probably going to be
dashed. Of course, since this is an indie movie, we're never sure exactly what
the future holds for Sherry. In a Hollywood movie, Sherry would probably have
something very close to a happy ending, or perhaps she would have an emotionally
devastating sad ending, but it would be something tidy in either case. This film
comes from the indie world where things are not so tidy, so Sherry basically has no
ending at all. Like most people in real life, she is somewhere in the middle
of her story.