sherrybaby/maggie gyllenhaal

since people on this blog are clearly bored, here’s a crackling recommendation. in sherrybaby, which is hereby joining my best-of-2006 list with full grades, sherry is an ex-con just out of jail and on her way to the halfway home that is to be her domicile. in the halfway home, she immediately does two things, in the following order: 1) she calls her child, to whom she’s not talked for three years (the child is about four), and 2) she fucks the director. this is pretty much what she does for the rest of the film, too: she attempts to establish a connection with her child, and she has lots of sex. sex seems to be the only way sherry knows of connecting with people and, for a change, these connections are not the abusive, exploitative, violent type films about dysfunctional women tend to portray. the men sherry beds may not all be rescuers, but they are all right. director laurie collyer is hell-bent on not giving us targets for easy judgment. even when sherry gives a matter-of-fact, bored blow-job to an employment counselor who’s understandably reluctant to put her to work in a kindergarten, you don’t hate the guy. he’s got a lousy job, and it’s not like he asked.

and it’s not exactly as if sherry is easy to love, either: her life has toughened her up and she walks through it with headphones on (often literally), eyes keenly trained on the prize, which is getting her daughter back. this is not an easy task: because she’s so fucked up, sherry makes for a rather unconventional mother. she clearly loves her daughter very much, but she’s always a little bit off. as much as she tries to follow the rules and keep a lid on her mounting frustration and desperation, she’s always screwing up.

[SPOILERS] except, really, she’s not screwing up much at all. this is the genius of this film. you realize that sherry is off not because of what she does, but because of the way other people react to what she does. every time she opens her mouth, her family (her daughter has been raised by her brother and his wife) look deeply uncomfortable, embarrassed. this embarrassment and sherry’s obliviousness to it are a beautiful touch on collyer’s part: they provide a sparse, economical way for the viewer to put sherry’s family history together. by the end of the film, you’ve figured out that she was sexually abused by her father; that her brother bobby is as scarred by their past as she is, only slightly better able to cope with the pain; that bobby’s reluctance to trust sherry is as much due to her lifelong pigeonholing as to her personal flakiness; that sherry herself has become pathologically unable to relinquish her role as the family freak.

but it is not only with her family and her past that sherry has to contend. everyone is hard on an ex-junkie ex-con, starting with her parole officers and her housemates, who have troubles of their own. the fact is that it’s just not easy out there, especially if you never had a chance to start with.

as i said, i liked about this film that the guys are not scum. bobby genuinely tries to help sherry, in his awkward, stunted way. he tries to do the right think by her, his wife, and the child alexis. and the native american lover sherry picks up at her AA meetings is equally sweet. even the PO is understandable in his harshness: he’s a guy doing a thankless job, and he does cut her a few breaks. everyone in this film is given his or her share of understanding. this is not a film searching for culprits or scapegoats. it’s a film about normal people in extremely tight spaces. at the end, it’s really hard to say what went wrong with sherry or what needs to change for her to be okay. events and circumstances breed one another, and people (yes, even children) get caught inside, strings pulling on all sides.

i also liked the moments in which sherry blows up. maggie gyllenhaal (yeeees!) is amazing. she goes from being breezy and flaky, to being desperate, to being deadly violent in split seconds. there are people whose violence is so hidden that when it bubbles over you feel stunned and scared: gyllenhaal renders this beautifully. as much as sherry is inarticulate in her understanding of herself and others, she is expressive with her body, which is alternately loose and gangly, seductive, and tense to the point of writhing. her body writhes a lot — in psychic pain, in sexual desire, in druggie bliss. her desperation, her barely holding it all together, is just below skin level. you feel it even when she is at her happiest — holding her baby, telling her she loves her.

this film has been haunting me. we have talked here about angry women, and sherry swanson should be one of them. she’s got reasons to be angry. what’s really painful, though, is how caged she is. if she wants her child back she needs to be normal, yet normality is precluded to her. very powerful.

3 thoughts on “sherrybaby/maggie gyllenhaal”

  1. I liked this film a great deal and I’m really glad you posted on it, Gio (and a great post it is). Gyllenhall’s live wire/open wound performance is so good, undercutting your desire to identify/empathize with her in nearly every scene. Still, she maintains her dignity–her vulnerabilities, weaknesses and strengths–throughout, and you just can’t help but pull for her. It is one of the gutsiest, most complex screen performances I’ve seen in some time. That sequence at her daughter’s birthday party is heartbreaking. Sherry’s narcissism (jealously battling for her father’s affection while he dotes on his grandaughter) makes you want to knock her on the head; when dad starts groping Sherry’s breasts later in the sequence, the dysfunctional family secrets lurking beneath the surface of things throws you into a tailspin. I’d also like to throw out another good word for Sherry’s brother Bobby (and his wife for that matter). The Swanson family history sticks to him as well, and he’s working so diligently to be a better husband and dad than anything he seemingly has known. Bobby conveys so much in small gestures and facial expressions. It is a portrait in miniture which counterbalances Sherry’s larger-than-life persona. While Gyllenhall owns the film, this is a story about a family just barely holding on. It is indeed powerful stuff.

  2. i liked the brother a whole lot too. i like it that he’s bearish and sweet, just like one would want an older (he’s older, right?) brother to be. and yes, he is keeping the family together, taking the tough decisions, handing out love and sympathy and reassurance. and you see it’s hard won, it doesn’t come easy. the scene when they have coffee in the restaurant — it’s just after the breast-groping scene, and he says to her “i know” and maybe she gets it maybe not, but we do, and it’s nice.

    and how touching is it when the sister in law offers sherry a make-over? it’s such a brilliant little scene, these two women communicating the only way they can, barely getting through to each other, and yet (well, at least the sister in law) trying.

  3. watched this last night, and it is indeed a gem. thanks for the recommendation, gio.

    the performances are all great. i was intrigued actually by the way in which some of the characters were approached. i didn’t recognize a whole bunch of the actors and for a while wasn’t sure if they were all professionals. there was this shuffling, uneasy naturalism to a bunch of the performances that worked really well. lots of great scenes: the one between sherry and bobby at the diner, where he tells her hesitantly that he’s on her side is heartbreaking. and everything with danny trejo is great–how happy he must have been to be given a role that doesn’t call for him to be a lowlife.

    yes, the film is not interested in judgements and it constantly exposed my generic expectations about what a film about such a woman is supposed to be like. and the film sticks with us precisely because there aren’t any climactic confrontations or disintegrations to organize our response.

    now i have to go to imdb and see what else collyer has done.

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