A debut that is uplifting yet tragic
Adrienne Shelly’s debut film, “Waitress,” premiered Sunday afternoon to some of the most enthusiastic response of the Sundance festival so far, and under the most poignant and surreal circumstances. Shelly, who wrote, directed and acted in the film, was killed in November at age 40, just after her film was selected for competition but just days before Sundance informed the lucky filmmakers.
Sundance festival Director Geoff Gilmore and “Waitress” producer Michael Roiff were left with the unenviable task of introducing the film, whose tone and spirit is so completely at odds with the circumstances of its debut that it made the situation especially hard to square. A tender, loopy, uplifting comedy about a young woman (Keri Russell) who finds herself transformed by a pregnancy she thought she didn’t want, “Waitress” is the kind of film whose giddy festival debut usually proceeds uninterrupted through its theatrical release. (Fox Searchlight bought the film soon after the screening for a little less than $4 million.)
Russell plays Jenna, a waitress and “pie-making genius” who dreams of striking out on her own. The trouble is that she is stuck in a disastrous marriage to the controlling, jealous Earl (Jeremy Sisto), and when she becomes pregnant, she fears she’ll never leave. Shelly herself was happily married and the mother of a very young daughter, and had grappled with issues of how to have a child and continue in a demanding creative career. The movie’s tone is precariously but beautifully balanced, like a tightrope acrobat, between kitsch, melodrama and comedy, and Russell’s performance is funny, sexy, vulnerable and sad, but mostly amazingly resolute in a funny, sexy, vulnerable and sad way. Most notable is its irreverent, hilarious approach to sex, which the movie recognizes as pure comical catharsis.
The story of Shelly’s passing -- she was found hanging in the New York apartment she used as her office, and a construction worker in the building later confessed he’d staged the death to look like a suicide -- undoubtedly will cling to “Waitress” for a while, but the movie stands on its own merits and is possessed of a singular sensibility. There’s a line in the film that sums it up: An old coot played by Andy Griffith, who counts Jenna as his only friend, confesses something and then says, “I submit to your feminine judgment.” It’s a wonderful line, but it also encapsulates the guiding ethos of “Waitress,” a movie whose sensibility is triumphantly feminine in a way that is so rare in American movies as to be endangered.
Enormous stylistic and thematic differences aside (Shelly’s approach is all sly subterfuge and no confrontation), the taboo-shattering love story at the center of “Waitress” (which I won’t spoil here) made me think of French provocatrice Catherine Breillat, for reasons I haven’t completely worked out yet. Maybe it’s because so often in American movies, even female directors fall into the trap of portraying women as victims, abstractions or ideals, but missing the sort of universal female subjectivity often found in European movies by a mile. In “Waitress,” Shelly doesn’t so much embrace the contradictions of femininity as convince you of their unassailable logic, dispelling moldy pieties about female behavior with such deft dispatch you don’t notice they’ve been smashed until the Dustbuster has been put away and the evidence is gone.