You'd have to do the math to know for sure, but casual analysis suggests that stories about drug addicts, especially recovering ones, make up a disproportionate number of stories told on the screen. American movies are fixated on the twin forces of degradation and redemption. Whether that's due to actual audience interest in the subject matter, or to the ease with which stories about addicts fit into the prescribed dramatic structure is hard to say. Or maybe it's not that hard. The trouble with movies about addicts is that, pathos notwithstanding, the addicts themselves tend to be boring and predictable, not to mention especially vulnerable to cheap psychoanalysis.
Despite some affecting performances (Brad William Henke, who plays Maggie Gyllenhaal's brother, Bobby, is wonderful), Laurie Collyer's "Sherrybaby" travels down a familiar road and doesn't add much to the trip. It also arrives on the heels of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's sublime "Half Nelson" and doesn't fare well in comparison. Where "Half Nelson" focused on one addict's life, "Sherrybaby" focuses on a less finely drawn addict's path, with very different results.
Gyllenhaal plays Sherry Swanson, a now clean and sober heroin addict from a middle-class background, recently released from prison. During her absence, her young daughter, Alexis (Ryan Simpkins) has been raised by Bobby and his wife, Lynnette (Bridget Barkan), who has for all intents and purposes become Alexis' mother, even putting off having children of her own. Naturally, Lynnette is conflicted about Sherry's return, and worried about the effect it will have on Alexis. Sherry, meanwhile, immediately sets to smothering the child in a way that's both cloying and vaguely menacing, and Bobby soon finds himself torn between his wife's wariness and his sister's voracious need for love and attention.
The problem with Sherry is that, unlike Ryan Gosling's Dan in "Half Nelson," whose humanity transcends his addiction and who is still capable, no matter how uneasily, to maintain relationships with others, she is a terminally uninteresting narcissist with a bad case of arrested development. On top of it, Collyer saddles her with the mother of all daddy issues, presumably to make more palatable the fact that Sherry's only way of relating to men is by taking off her clothes within minutes of meeting them.
Once in the halfway house, it takes her about five minutes to get busy with the director of the program, a long-haired 12-stepper named Andy (Rio Hackford), in the basement. She gets rid of him later by glomming onto Dean (Danny Trejo), a "real, live Injun" who recognizes her from her days as an underage stripper and comes conveniently to her rescue. Her dealings with her parole officer, played by Giancarlo Esposito, are unrelentingly brutal, and her interview with the director of a jobs program is worse. At a certain point, compassion fatigue sets in — especially considering how comfortable Sherry seems to be in the role of the dirty girl, and how indiscriminately she courts attention.
"Sherrybaby" is well-crafted and includes some nice moments — there's an unexpected scene in which Lynnette, a makeup saleswoman, reaches out to Sherry by offering to do her makeup. But overall, there's something nihilistic about having to watch Sherry regress to her not-so-happy childhood the moment she gets home, and something alienating about the way in which her compulsions completely overshadow her personality. Who is this woman? Without her slutty clothes, her cigarettes and her junkie's jones for drugs, sex and a toy baby to love her, she's more or less a cipher. It would be frustrating enough if the main character in this month's other druggie movie weren't so finely drawn and individual — but that seems to be the fate of actresses in movies these days; there's not much to them beyond their sexuality. Ultimately, almost as if by accident, the movie ends up belonging to Bobby and Lynnette, two simple, sensitive people doing their best to deal with their twisted family.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Includes scenes of sexuality, incest and drug use.
An IFC Films release. Writer-director Laurie Collyer. Producers Marc Turtletaub, Lemore Syvan. Director of photography Russell Lee Fine. Editors Curtiss Clayton and Joe Landauer.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
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