The Substance of Abuse by Tom Jennings
[film review of Sherrybaby, directed by Laurie Collyer, published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 22, November 2007]
In parts resembling by-the-numbers issue-led TV docudrama and quirky low-budget indie feature, Sherrybaby exceeds the limits of these genres thanks to the honesty and subtlety of its narrative and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s magnificent immersion in the role of Sherry – a 22 year-old New Jersey junkie fresh out of prison trying to turn her life around and resume motherhood of a young daughter looked after by her brother and sister-in-law. Gyllenhaal exudes worldy-wise determination, vulnerability, sass and naivete, yet this is no naff redemptive melodrama puppeteering its audience’s emotions and pimping its characters. Instead, shameless manipulation and sentimentality are located firmly in Sherry’s behavioural repertoire and are consistently marked as self-destructive, inappropriate and/or abject – but also intelligible responses to the arbitrary, corrupt environment in which she struggles in childlike desperation to negotiate friendship, family and official relationships.
Former documentary-maker Collyer based the story on a close friend’s life and her own experiences as social work assistant. So the details of halfway house, probation routine and rehab groups ring completely true – where those she encounters exhibit occasional goodwill but, in this soul-crushing system, more often hover between cynical, hostile and downright pathological. Sherry strides cluelessly into the morass fortified by the Bible and simple-minded personal growth slogans, freely deploying her open sexuality and self-obsession to open doors always threatening to slam shut. The excellent supporting cast flesh out Gyllenhaal’s convincing naturalistic depiction of conflictuality: unpredictably sympathetic, alienating, victimised, brave and foolish. A powerfully poignant realism allows her wholly unrealistic (and potentially catastrophic) personal mythology – caring for a child in actuality rather than fantasy – to crumble as she backslides towards addictive oblivion.
Collyer’s riskiest tactic was to contextualise Sherry’s conduct in the dysfunctional emotional quagmire of her parental home, prompting familiar reductive cliches of preoccupied distant mother and premature sexualisation via paternal abuse as precursors to a promiscuous infantile inability to maintain boundaries and sustain mature mutuality. These issues are not fudged, but creditably faced head-on – as they should be. Better still, the pitfalls are sidestepped by sketching the possibility of progress only with collective generosity and shared effort, the recognition of weakness and give and take among equals, and due respect given for following one’s desires. The flashes of genuine passionate connection between Sherry, her friends and family thus signal chances for a fruitful future as well as the very definite prospect of reproducing the cycle of damage – neither tragedy nor triumph being logically foreclosed or morally judged. And if you generalise the reference points of addiction, narcissism and objectification to the contemporary stranglehold of sociopathic consumerism – then that’s an unusually intelligent and worthwhile message to find on a cinema screen.