One day at a time.
Maggie Gyllenhaal has built a career out of doing the kinds of roles professional critics like to call "brave", "fearless", or "raw" which are really just euphemisms they use anytime a young American actress opts out of the latest romantic comedy with Owen Wilson or Matthew McConaughey for a film that requires them to get naked, slam junk, or whore themselves. And in writer-director Laurie Collyer's Sherrybaby (2006), Gyllenhaal does all three and then some, and were it a different actress or less intelligent and assured filmmaker, Sherrybaby would be the kind of trite tale of redemption, noble suffering, motherhood, and the evils of drugs that uses just enough "grittiness" and "real-life style" film making to express its banalities in a slightly more sophisticated way. This type of film would repulse me instinctively, so it is all the more rewarding that thanks to Collyer's simple, realistic script and direction, which thankfully offers no real solutions to the problems it depicts or phony uplift in the life of the desperate people it focuses on, that we have a work that is a small humanist masterpiece, that despite two awkward and ill-suited, woman and acoustic-guitar, "when will I find my way?" type songs at the beginning and end, simply and unsparingly presents a few days as lived by someone on the fringe of society. This is due to Collyer, but also largely to the power of Ms. Gyllenhaal, whose performance as Sherry maintains the entire focus of the film from credits to credits, in short she is everything about this movie. For a movie where almost nothing grand or amazing happens, I found myself involved to the point that I actually had to fast-forward several scenes just to make sure nothing too unbearable happened to Sherry.
As Sherry, Gyllenhaal fully embodies a character that is a compulsive and serial fuck-up, she is childish, untrustworthy, and does everything possible to earn your scorn, but remains strangely likable throughout. In short she is the "beautiful loser", that particularly American brand of anti-hero who, like Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, does everything completely and totally wrong, but never fails to lose our attention and if not empathy, then at least our respect for the sheer futility of their plight.
The film opens with Sherry returning home to the Garden State after serving several years in prison for crimes she committed in service to her heroin addiction. The crux of the film is Sherry's attempts to bond with, and be a mother to the daughter she left behind with her brother and his wife years ago. (The kid who plays her daughter gives a performance so natural and un-coached, that it cannot in good conscience be called "acting.") That she barely knows this child, and has done nothing to raise her is one of the many questions this film proposes about the responsibility of society and the individual towards someone like Sherry. Sherry wants nothing more than to take care of her child, and the film repeatedly shows her to be good with her daughter and other kids, but this speaks more to her generally childish behavior and outlook on life, than any kind of fitness for motherhood and the massive responsibility it entails. She wants desperately to be loved by her one and only achievement in life, but the film leaves open the question of whether she deserves to be or not.
Sherry's circumstances are fascinating on their own terms, as we see firsthand the almost infinite obstacles an ex-con junkie faces upon attempting to re-enter society. Sherry has to deal with a half-way house in the middle of the ghetto, where she immediately earns the scorn of her fellow residents, a hard-ass but well-meaning parole officer played by the always reliable Giancarlo Esposito, and my personal favorite, a completely hopeless "Genesis House" recovery program where ex-junkies and addicts hold hands, recite slogans, and give testimony, all no more than a few blocks from the sweet oblivion of heroin. That we routinely demand those in recovery live in the very same poverty stricken hell-holes that make sure our prisons and rehabs stay chock full of people like Sherry, lest they disturb the suburban fantasy of middle-class life is yet another interesting sociological dimension that is hinted at by the film.
Did I mention that within hours of entering "Genesis House" Sherry is fucking her program leader? From movies like Secretary to Happy Endings, Gyllenhaal distinguishes herself with characters that display a kind of sexual frankness that never fails to depict the carnal hydraulics of human sexuality as its really lived. There is no artfully shot, "softcore" style of "lovemaking", you know, the kind where good-looking people have some nice missionary sex and roll around under the sheets, but rather Sherry bent over a bunch of cardboard boxes in the basement of a half-way house getting balled by a man with a ridiculous pony-tail. Yet Sherry is no "victim" or passive body to be used and abused, once pony-tail guy gets off too quick for her liking, she swiftly and assuredly pushes his dumb-ass face in between her legs. Once again, all credit is due to Collyer and Gyllenhaal for handling this material in way that lesser talent could not have. Sex is merely one part of Sherry's compulsive and attention-seeking personality, we are presented again and again with dangerous and irresponsible behavior, but in such a way that I have to ask myself, were I in a similar position could I really say that I wouldn't jump at the chance to get laid after several years behind bars? (A: No.) Its clear that she is more than willing to use someone else to get off, and its clear that she enjoys what she does. Sherry is promiscuous to say the least, but never loses her agency or becomes simply a hopeless and passive body to be used by men. She quickly switches from pony-tail guy to a more stable "relationship" with fellow group-member played by Danny Trejo, and really we have to ask the question of how fucked up one's life has to be, when making out with Danny Trejo's pock-marked grill is one of the more pleasant and positive things in your world.
Again, without melodrama or false exposition we get the idea that for as long as she can remember Sherry has used sex for attention and has internalized that its the only thing she has to offer men--indeed we're given a brief scene that strongly implies Sherry's father has taken liberties with her for quite some time, and in another movie this scene would have been a tear-shedding climax where Sherry confronts her abuser that has set her on this path and begins to heal, but as it stands its almost a throwaway moment.
All this comes to a head--no pun intended--in maybe the film's most memorable scene where Sherry has to meet with some state-appointed career placement advisor. We are again confronted with the utter futility that faces someone in Sherry's position. When its clear that her goal of "working with kids" can't be accommodated, and is only qualified for the most dehumanizing and shitty work available, she simply stands up straight, unbuttons her blouse, pulls out her tits and says, "I'll suck your dick if you give me the job I want," she does, and he does, and Sherry is placed in some day-school for inner-city youths, where she is a big hit with the kids. It's both funny and sad, horrible yet strangely respectable, a testament to her failure in life, but almost admirable in its determination. Again, a lesser film would have treated this like the worst possible thing ever, but Sherrybaby's remarkable restraint and maturity wins out. Is this the worst, most degrading thing she could possibly do? It works out for her in the end, and is this any less degrading than a host of other, more socially "correct" paths out of her situation? No answers are offered.
Sherrybaby is a slice of life as lived, by someone who it is not only easy to hate and dismiss, but exactly the kind of person we as a society do on a daily basis. The power of the film comes from the fact that Sherry is such a fully realized character that one can easily imagine her story repeated thousands if not millions of times throughout the country. It repeatedly asks the viewer to test the limits of their empathy. What do we owe a person like Sherry? When someone willfully ejects themselves from society through their own selfishness and stupidity, be it through the needle or dozens of other available means, how should they be judged? Should they be judged, do we have the right to condemn them? And why is it near impossible for an addict--that is one who is not rich--to re-enter society? Is this because the responsible, who lead lives of quiet desperation, secretly envy the reckless swan dive into a life of loud and obvious desperation, and all the accompanying attention, that is exemplified by someone like Sherry? Maybe she shouldn't, but Sherry seems to enjoy life more than those around her, and in the film's quiet climax, she achieves a kind of heroism simply by gaining awareness of just how much help she needs.