Maggie Gyllenhaal gives a heart-rending, Oscar-worthy performance in Sherrybaby, written and directed by Laurie Collyer. Gyllenhaal plays Sherry Swanson, a former teenage heroin addict coming off a three year prison sentence and trying to stay clean and get her life back on track. Sherry also wants desperately to be reunited with her young daughter, Alexis (Ryan Simpkins) , who has been cared for by Sherry's brother Bob (Brad William Henke) and his wife Lynette (Bridget Barkan) in her absence. Sherry checks into a halfway house, looks for a job, meets with her parole officer, goes to twelve-step meetings, and struggles to reestablish trust and love with Alexis, who has come to view Lynette as a mother-figure in Sherry's absence. A dark secret of sexual abuse lurks in the closet of Sherry's past, though, and she keeps tripping over the consequences of not resolving her issues around the past.
Sherrybaby is a superbly intense film - not in the thriller film sense, but in the way you come to feel so much for the characters: Bob, torn between his love for his sister, and his love for his wife, who resents Sherry's return; Alexis, torn between the mother-figure who has cared for her and her real mother, who wants her daughter's love so tangibly, you can almost reach through the screen and touch it, and most of all Sherry. You can't help but root silently for her, even as you want to smack her for some of the choices she makes. Gyllenhaal gives the best performance of her career to date in this film, and she's a superb actress, so that's saying a lot. When she stands up at the dinner table to poignantly sing The Bangles "Eternal Flame" to her daughter - a serenade of her love for the child she has never taken proper care of, and her own ardent desire to be a good mother, Gyllenhaal radiates maternal love and desperation.
Excellent performances from the rest of the cast support Gyllenhaal. Henke is deeply moving as the brother who wants desperately for his beloved sister to succeed and stay clean. Bob is torn - he loves Alexis, and he knows his wife wants to keep her, but a part of him wishes for Sherry to finally pull her life together so she can be a mother to her daughter. Barkan is also excellent as the foil to Sherry's wish to reunite with her daughter. Lynette is defensive and protective of Alexis, but unwittingly causes the little girl more pain and confusion by trying to cling to her role as surrogate mother after Sherry's return. The one thing the film doesn't address is why Bob and Lynette never took Alexis to see her mother in prison, and whether that was Sherry's choice or theirs. You can't help but think, though, that the reunion would have been easier on both mother and daughter if they had had regular contact over the preceding three years.
Sherrybaby is not an easy film to watch, especially if you have anyone in your own life who has struggled with addiction. Addiction is a terrible thing; even when someone has support from family and every reason in the world not to backslide, as Sherry does, the siren song of obliterating the pain with a drug, even for a moment, is very strong. Watching someone you love repeatedly make destructive choices isn't an easy thing, and Henke in particular captures that anguish. Also notable is Giancarlo Esposito as Sherry's tough parole officer, Officer Hernandez. Hernandez believes in tough love; he's there to help Sherry get her life back on track, but it's also his job to act as a hall monitor of sorts, to keep her from taking a wrong turn. Watching Gyllenhaal struggle with the demons of her past and repeatedly make choices based on her view of herself as only worth something because she is beautiful and has a nice figure is tough. There are a lot of women in the sex industry with the same issues Sherry has; women who allow men to use them because that's the only way they've ever learned to feel okay about themselves. Sherry is a frustrating character at times, but watching the film your heart aches for her and other women in her situation - separated from their children, taking solace in drugs and men, trying to find their way in the world on the one hand, and just wanting it all to get better without any work on their part on the other.
I talked to a few people after the show who felt the film might be a tough sell commercially, because in many ways Sherry is not a likable character, especially if you believe addiction is a choice and not an illness. Gyllenhaal's performance is so strong and moving, though, that it overcomes that hurdle overall. Sherry isn't a perfect person; she is flawed, she struggles, she makes bad decisions. But she doesn't just give up, even when she takes a step or two backward. Her resilience and courage in trying to overcome her past and build a future for her daughter will have most of the audience on her side by the end of the film. Collyer does an excellent job of encouraging a natural friction between her actors that makes the confrontational scenes ring especially true. It's clear the entire cast believed wholeheartedly in the message of the film - why some people's lives turn out okay while others make wrong turns that end up being destructive, and in the power of individuals to overcome their bad choices and circumstances to make a better way.