Sherry Swanson (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has just been paroled. A heroin addict since the age of 16 (she reminisces at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that horse was “the love of my life”), she was sent up on theft charges (gotta support that habit) two-and-a-half years ago and now that she’s out, very much wants to pick up the pieces with her young daughter Alexis (Ryan Simpkins). Sherry’s brother Bobby (Brad William Hanke) and his wife Lynette (Bridget Barkan) have been Alexis’ guardians while Sherry has been living off the bounty of the county, and where Lynette is concerned…she’s not entirely certain she wants to encourage Sherry’s “mom” aspirations. (Lynette even has a talk with Alexis—offscreen—to suggest that the little girl call Sherry by her first name instead of “Mommy,”)
Tempting though it may be, Lynette shouldn’t be considered the villain in this fairy tale. Sherry is an emotionally stunted screw-up; her heart is in the right place…but she’s made bad choices all her life, and despite her intention to stay clean, the pressure of being a parolee (her parole officer [Giancarlo Esposito] is a real hard case) and the stress from her family situation soon finds her sliding back into her old habit. Her determination to hold onto Alexis at any cost may force her to do something she’ll surely regret.
I’ve always been jaded whenever the subject of the Academy Awards is broached, particularly since I can’t quite comprehend why there have been so many actresses who’ve put Oscars on their mantles ahead of one of my favorite thespians, Maggie Gyllenhaal. (I will not sully this blog with those actresses’ names…but they are available upon request.) My memory isn’t as sharp as it once was but I’m pretty sure the first movie I saw Gyllenhaal in was 2002’s Secretary—a darkly comic bit of WTF in which Mags plays an assistant all-too-willing to participate in boss James Spader’s BDSM lifestyle. Since that time, Gyllenhaal has had high-profile showcases in flicks like World Trade Center (2006) and The Dark Knight (2008)…but I prefer her in smaller movies like Crazy Heart (2008—the only film for which she has received an Oscar nomination as of this post) and Hysteria (2011). I was sharp-eyed enough to grab Away We Go (2009) when it turned up on a free HBO-On-Demand weekend, and when I came across a marked-down DVD of Sherrybaby (2006) recently on sale at Hamilton Books I decided to make an impulse purchase.
Sherry Swanson in Sherrybaby is not in the running for Mother of the Year…and yet it’s Gyllenhaal’s excellent performance that nudges the viewer into eventually sympathizing with her despite her flaws; writer-director Laurie Collyer has brought to the screen a fascinating woman whose sad direction in life is subtly revealed in a scene where Sherry arrives late to Alexis’ birthday party and is frustrated that her flesh-and-blood seemingly wants nothing to do with her (sister-in-law Lynette has strong feelings for the girl she thinks of as her own, as does brother Bob). As Sherry pours out her pain to her father (Sam Bottoms), Bob, Sr. tries to comfort her…and in doing so, inappropriately squeezes one of her breasts. The younger Bob is a witness to this disturbing scene from an adjoining room…and yet he says nothing.
The revelation that Sherry is a victim of sexual abuse really packs an emotional wallop, magnified by Collyer’s understated presentation and the fact that the subject is never again broached in the movie (not to mention her brother’s troubling silence). It also explains why, in Sherrybaby’s early scenes, Sherry has no sooner entered the halfway-house where she’s been assigned when she’s obliging the guy who runs the recovery program with a bit of slap-and-tickle in the basement…and how she’s later able to convince a job counselor she’d be perfect for a job at a youth center by giving him…well, it begins with an “F” and rhymes with “ratio.” Sherry has used sex both to her advantage and for her survival her entire life, which is why it’s not too much to hope she and Alexis will get back together—quite frankly, as dysfunctional as that household is, I’d be concerned whenever the kid is around Grandpa, if you get what I mean.
Realistically, we know that a Sherry-Alexis reunion would be terrible; Sherry can barely take care of herself, let alone accept responsibility for a tiny human. Selfish, spoiled, and flakily narcissistic, Sherry is nevertheless no quitter when it comes to wanting what’s best for the little girl she loves dearly; she’s just been beaten down so much it’s not realistic hoping for a happy ending. In watching Sherrybaby, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a similar character played by Gyllenhaal in 2005’s Happy Endings—Jude, the female hustler who not only sleeps with confused gay teen Otis (Jason Ritter) but his old man, Frank (Tom Arnold). Jude is a poisonous human being…but Gyllenhaal skillfully finds something in the character to make Jude at the very least interesting.
You know actor-boxer Danny Trejo either from those Sling a la Carte TV ads or a myriad of B-movie product like Machete (2010) and Machete Kills (2013)…but he has the role of a lifetime as Sherry’s fellow addict from AA (always supportive and he can intuit as to what she’s going through—Trejo’s character’s shares Sherry’s situation with five kids living with an ex that he rarely sees), who affectionately calls her “little sister.” I’ll watch just about anything with Giancarlo Esposito (Do the Right Thing, Bob Roberts) in the cast, too, and there are also nice turns from Brad William Henke, Bridget Barkan, and the late Sam Bottoms (Kate Burton plays Mrs. Bottoms…and the hesitant look that she gives Sherry when they first meet speaks volumes). Sherrybaby is moving, authentic, and a film that—while garnering from much praise from international film festivals the year it was released—should have netted Maggie Gyllenhaal an Oscar nod.