3 stars (out of four)
Maggie Gyllenhaal can't brush her teeth without making another movie, and by this point in her screen career we can take stock of her considerable and rather deceptive abilities.
Why deceptive? Because in every film she has a way of being in a scene while floating slightly above it, like a less ironic, more toothsome Kevin Spacey. In "Sherrybaby," a good, tough-minded indie, Gyllenhaal plays a New Jersey ex-con and recovering heroin addict. While she's serving a three-year sentence, Sherry's daughter (Ryan Simpkins) has been in the care of her sweet-natured brother (Brad William Henke) and his tightly wrapped wife (Bridget Barkan). Sherry gets out. She wants her daughter back. She needs a steady job. She cannot succumb to the old addiction.
Written and directed by Laurie Collyer, "Sherrybaby" came through the Sundance Filmmakers Lab, like so many indies before it. There's a schematic, workshopped quality to Collyer's script, detailing the intertwined setbacks and small triumphs in one woman's struggle to recover a life for herself. Yet the film works. It doesn't go soft or inspirational in its later stages, when most films would. It doesn't pump up the redemption or the melodrama.
While the main character's survival instincts guide the movie, Gyllenhaal has a way of behaving on screen that lets an audience assess a moment or a relationship for itself. With her big, silent-movie eyes and bee-stung kisser, the actress brings a distinctive face to any assignment. Her voice, scratchy and deadpan, undercuts any unwanted cuteness; she works on her own spaced-out rhythm that somehow never becomes a drag on a given scene. She's honest, even as her characters' travails demand a certain emotional remove.
In "Sherrybaby" she's playing a woman who has long traded her body for a job, or for some honest affection. There's a lot of nudity in the picture, and it too feels honest. Danny Trejo plays Sherry's sometime lover and friend, and he's a big asset to a small, sharp film that won't be for everyone.That's a compliment.
Written and directed by Laurie Collyer; photographed by Russell Lee Fine; edited by Curtis Clayton, Joe Landauer; music by Jack Livesey; production design by Stephen Beatrice; produced by Marc Turtletaub and Lemore Syvan. An IFC Films release; opens Friday at the AMC Loews Pipers Alley and Evanston Century Cinearts. Running time: 1:36. No MPAA rating; parents cautioned for nudity, sexuality and adult themes.
Sherry Swanson - Maggie Gyllenhaal
Bobby Swanson - Brad William Henke
Parole Officer Hernandez - Giancarlo Esposito
Bob Swanson Sr. - Sam Bottoms