The Movie Binge

Review: Sherrybaby

Dreamcatcher? You have GOT to be kidding me.

[Although he will get an official introduction soon, Todd is one of our new writers and this is his first review. Show him some love. Oh, and visit his personal site, — Ed.]

Sherrybaby is a film about a compulsive personality — someone who wants what she wants when she wants it (the "it" in this case being mostly heroin, but also sex, being the center of attention, and the love of her child) — set adrift in a world that only sometimes conforms to her whims. As such, I identify. I mean, I am not now nor have ever been a junkie, outside of my addictions to fried foods, gambling, internet pornography, Glade air freshener and cockfighting, but I sometimes fall prey to an irresistible urge I just can't stifle, no matter what the cost to others. You don't have to take my word for it, because the urge I'm trying very hard to suppress is to type out a handful of wrathful sentences that may totally spoil this movie for you.

But hold on — maybe I can conquer my baser urges, stick to the straight and narrow for the length of this, my first ever Movie Binge review. If filmmaker Laurie Collyer wants us to believe that there's hope for former teen stripper/junkie/thief Sherry Swanson (Maggie Gyllenhaal), even after a stint behind bars, maybe I can hold out some hope for my own redemption. I'm going to try really hard and I hope you have faith in me not to screw this up. Cue treacly, recovery-oriented soundtrack tune NOW.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is one of the most appealing actresses working in American film today, and I don't say this just because I admire her willingness to get naked, get spanked and sing offkey onscreen. There is something about those round eyes and that overbite that charm the hell out of me, even when she's playing a hardbitten narcissist whose day-to-day world includes the necessity to spit out lines like "I'll suck your dick for the job I want." Her performance as the title character in this film is a wonderful series of braless grace notes, even when the writing totally destroys any enjoyment I could possibly get from the film.

The other performances are topnotch as well, particularly Danny Trejo (a very familiar face to fans of the cinema of Robert Rodriguez) as a friend Sherry makes in AA/NA who turns out to be more that just a source of immediate gratification. Although, the scene of him burning sage in a little bowl to cleanse Sherry of the evil heroin spirits is a bit much to take in a portrayal of a Native American character. Fuck, he's even got a DREAMCATCHER hanging from the rear-view mirror of his Caddy, a vehicle that Sherry ends up deciding to appropriate for her own whims after the generous Dean lends it to her.

The film is structured around a series of physical boundaries that Sherry successively violates. As a recent parolee, Sherry's movements are restricted first to the state, then to the little unlockable room in the halfway house, then to her hotel room. These various illicit border crossings are a metaphor for Sherry's continued failure, even if now "clean", to recognize and respect other people's boundaries — her brother and sister-in-law, who have been caring for her daughter while she was locked up, being the most egregious victims. The structure works quite nicely as we see Sherry unable to cope with her own boundaries being crossed, like when some dude bumps into her as she gets off the bus from prison, or when her parole officer is unexpectedly waiting for her in her hotel room, or...

Where the movie goes horribly off the rails is to dump a possible "root cause" for all of Sherry's issues into our laps, and even in the annals of bad drama "reveals" this scene reaches some new lows. It leaves no question, no ambiguity as to how the filmmaker wants us to regard to the predicament Sherry's in, and results in (a) an immediate transfusion of largely unwarranted sympathy by the audience to this somewhat unlikable character and (b) a ridiculous sequence where Sherry flees the scene, runs through a variety of neighborhoods until an appropriately druggified one is reached, and spends the rest of the night first snorting then shooting her poison of choice in a sort of comical binge.

As you've probably gathered, this "root cause" is the shocking spoiler I'm jonesing to spill, but maybe it will just suffice to say why I hated the scene so much. There is a premium placed on psychological exposition in American film that I despise. This sort of writing is routinely praised as deep and insightful and more or less determines the way character-based dramas are structured, and I feel it is completely reductive and entirely disrespectful of the characters. As Ryan Gosling's character says in the far superior Half Nelson, "One thing don't make a man," but apparently audiences or movie studios believe just that — that one thing can explain an entire person's life and wrap up all of their choices into one easily diagnosable (and consequently, fixable) disease. Mark off those boundaries for us please, Oh filmmaker!

Although I'm not denying that a formative experience(s) can precipitate a lifetime of compulsive behavior, that doesn't mean it makes good dramatic or psychological sense to drop a scene in the middle of the child's birthday party where Sherry's dad displays some not-new problems respecting the boundaries of his daughter's bathing-suit area. After seeing creepy dad fondle his 24 year-old ex con daughter's boobs (under the shirt no less) in the living room of his McMansion while the kids play musical chairs downstairs, there's little else you can think about for the entire film, and as soon as the film is over you just want to blurt out how bad the scene is and how it spoils the entire movie in both aesthetic and psychological ways. It's an irresistible urge. I'm sorry. You can't say I didn't try. Maybe I'll do better next time. But I'll understand if you're wary.


I'm glad you spoiled that. There's a glut of good stuff coming to theaters over the next month or two and I've got to budget myself. Knowing that I can watch this on video or not at all without feeling guilty helps me afford my health insurance.

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