If nothing else, “Sherrybaby” confirms Maggie Gyllenhaal as arguably the most fearless, self-possessed actress of her age in Hollywood.
A bleak drama of a petty thief and drug addict stumbling and fumbling to put her life in order after prison, “Sherrybaby” is not so much a film as a performance, and it’s a great one from Gyllenhaal.
With her debut dramatic feature, writer-director Laurie Collyer was inspired by the life of an old school friend who went to prison, but it’s the inspired casting of Gyllenhaal that lifts “Sherrybaby” out of the too-depressing-to-watch category.
There are little rays of hope here and there, yet the essence of the film is Gyllenhaal’s Sherry persistently tempted, frustrated and disillusioned to the point that old bad habits arise and threaten to put her back behind bars.
A wild child with a seedy, self-destructive air about her, Sherry’s a woman most people would not care to know in real life, trampy, hostile and willing to debase herself for small favors.
Gyllenhaal humanizes her so deeply and richly, though, that Sherry elicits sympathy even in her darkest and weakest moments.
As with the compulsive masochist she played in “Secretary,” Gyllenhaal takes an unpleasant character and makes her, if not lovable or even likable, at least tolerable, understandable and intriguing enough that you don’t mind hanging with her to see how things turn out.
Newly released after three years in jail for robbery to support her heroin habit, Sherry enters a halfway house, meets with her strict and unforgiving parole officer (Giancarlo Esposito) and sets out to find a job.
Sherry’s main preoccupation is a slow quest to reconnect with her young daughter, Alexis (Ryan Simpkins), who’s been in the care of Sherry’s brother, Bobby (Brad William Henke), and his wife, Lynnette (Bridget Barkan).
Though she cleaned up in the safe haven of prison, Sherry immediately finds her heroin cravings return once she’s back in the real world.
“I’ve been out for four days, and I feel like using so bad,” Sherry moans to fellow members at a drug-abuse support group, where she meets Dean (Danny Trejo), who becomes a kindly, worldly wise mentor and lover.
Sherry’s willful and quick to anger, her efforts at going straight crooked and ineffective. Complicating matters, Bobby and Lynnette have come to love Alexis as their own, and Sherry feels her sister-in-law is poisoning her attempts to bond with her daughter.
Collyer slips in a glimpse of Sherry’s ugly upbringing in a moment with her father (Sam Bottoms).
“Sherrybaby” is a definite downer, though beneath Sherry’s surface weakness, Gyllenhaal insinuates traces of resilience hinting at the strong, recovered woman and mother she could become.
Where heroin was once the love of her life, Sherry is trying to substitute Alexis. The emotion Gyllenhaal brings to Sherry’s apologetic reunion with her daughter is wrenching, beautiful, tragic and hopeful, all in one quiet, tearful moment.
The other actors fall in line with Gyllenhaal’s naturalistic performance, Esposito fierce and unyielding yet with an underpinning of compassion, Trejo casual and noncommittal yet showing signs of deep attachment for Sherry.
Henke has authentic fraternal rapport with Gyllenhaal, while Simpkins’ alternating joy and tears over her mother’s return feel utterly real.
Good as they are, the supporting players mainly are baubles ornamenting Gyllenhaal, who is on screen and intensely churning for the entire movie. The film itself is a collection of emotional highs and mostly lows for Gyllenhaal, who elevates it all far above the slim story.