Sherrybaby (2006): Laurie Collyer’s Feature Debut, Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal

Sundance Film Festival, January 20, 2006–The subject of Sherrybaby, a woman’s rehab after prison, has been done before, yet Maggie Gyllenhaal’s towering performance, as the white trash mom who’s a recovering alcoholic and drug-addict, elevates the film at least two notches above its melodramatic trappings and nearly formulaic narrative.

Director Laurie Collyer returned to Sundance with her first narrative feature, after exhibiting there her acclaimed 2000 documentary, “Nuyorican Dream.” In “Sherrybaby,” which she also wrote, Collyer offers a sharp portrait of an intense woman who’s struggling on a daily basis to keep her life in the right track.

Recently released from prison, Sherry dreams of getting a job and reuniting with her five-year-old daughter Alexis, who she barely knows. Conflicts arise when Sherry realizes that her brother Dan and his wife Lynne are more emotionally vested in raising her daughter than she (or they) is willing to admit.

When mother and daughter meet again for the first time after Sherrys release and have gone through the obligatory Hi mommy-Hi baby moments, Sherry confesses in fearless way to her perplexed daughter: “I went to jail because I did a bad thing. Do you know what jail is Is Sherry being brutally selfish for telling her daughter the truth Or is she just incredibly honest

It doesn’t help that Sherry slips back into drugs and has to endure rough treatment not only from her tough female peers at the rehab center, but also from her parole officer (Giancarlo Esposito), who’s watching her so closely you begin to suspect he may want her to fall back, only to reaize that he’s a pro who has gone through this process too many times before.

Collyer acquits herself more honorably as director than writer for her screenplay is a by-the-book rehab story, with all the calculated steps and missteps, aggressive and defensive conduct. Cordially we go through the motions with Sherry up close and personal, waiting for her to reach a point of crisis so that she can begin to heal and climb up back.

For melodrama, Collyer throws in a traumatic encounter between Sherry and her father, to whom she turns for sympathy and understanding, if not help, but instead gets more than she had bargained for. Though Sherry’s determined to weather the storm of her life, she must first find a way to overcome demons in her closet that have stifled her emotionally.

Sherry must also accept a new definition of motherhood, one based on psychological maturity rather than biological rights. “Sherrybaby” makes for an excellent case study of the relevant issue of biological versus sociological parenthood. Some of the meetings between Sherry and her reluctant daughter ring horribly true and are heartbreaking to watch.

In a performance that dominates the entire film, Maggie Gyllenhaal (older sister of Jake and daughter of director Gyllenhaal and screenwriter mom Naomi Foner) is utterly uninhabited (physically as well); she seems to connect to her part on a deep, visceral level.

Also good is her brother, a sensitive man caught between his troubled sister and his strict and demanding wife. The film’s most effective scenes, particularly the one at the very end, involve honest talk between brother and sister.

That said, in the end, we are left with a middlebrow therapeutic movie that’s only one step above a good TV-Movie-of-the-Week.

End note

My review was written in January at Sundance Fest. Since then, the movie has played in a number of major festivals, including Karlovy Vary Fest in July, where “Sherrybaby” won Best Picture and Best Actress for Gyllenhaal.