For 'SherryBaby,' a Lingering Power

Maggie Gyllenhaal (with Alexis Parks) as a young mother struggling with heroin addiction.
Maggie Gyllenhaal (with Alexis Parks) as a young mother struggling with heroin addiction. (Ifc Films)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 18, 2007

When Maggie Gyllenhaal was nominated for a Golden Globe last year, observers could be forgiven for having a "Whaaaaa?" moment. The gifted actress had been recognized for her lead performance in a movie called "SherryBaby," which was released in a few theaters around the country before heading straight down the chute to DVD.

That DVD is now out, and like the similarly barely released Mike Judge movie "Idiocracy," it deserves a long-tail afterlife. In a fearless performance that recalls her dazzling star turn in "Secretary," Gyllenhaal delivers a portrait of courage, self-deception and vulnerability with equal parts steel and subtlety. She plays Sherry Swanson, just released from prison after serving three years for robbery in connection to heroin addiction; on parole and forging a new, clean life, Sherry has the primary goal of reconnecting with her young daughter, who's been under the care of Sherry's brother Bobby and his wife, Lynette. (The fine supporting cast includes Brad William Henke and Bridget Barkan in those roles, as well as Sam Bottoms and Giancarlo Esposito as Maggie's father and parole officer, respectively.)

Making her feature fiction debut, writer-director Laurie Collyer has crafted an honest, nuanced look at rehabilitation, from the tiny victories of staying clean to the backslides and recriminations. Refreshingly free of the stereotypes and melodrama that too often drive such mother and child reunions, "SherryBaby" is brave enough to present for our consideration and sympathy a flawed protagonist, who can break your heart one minute and threaten to break someone's face the next.

Gyllenhaal, her hair frizzled blond and her spine a slouchy S-curve, undergoes a startling physical transformation as a character who, even in full addict-mode of self-absorption and entitlement, exudes a wary, hard-bitten tenderness and intelligence. Sherry is a contradiction wrapped inside a conundrum wrapped inside a sweet-and-sour candy wrapper: She'll use every manipulation -- sexual and otherwise -- to get her way, but she knows what's right and what isn't. As self-destructive as she is (and she has her reasons, as we discover), she has an overriding sense of self-preservation, such as when she hooks up with an imperfect but fundamentally decent recovering addict played by Danny Trejo.

"SherryBaby" fits firmly in the tradition of such performance-centered dramas as "The Woodsman" and "Half Nelson." It most closely resembles "Clean," a movie starring Maggie Cheung that came out last year, which wasn't nearly as accomplished. Unlike that movie, which demanded the audience's support for Cheung's character simply because she was a mother and happened to look good at her most selfish, moody and narcissistic, "SherryBaby" takes nothing for granted. Collyer knows that mothers aren't born, they're made.

Viewers will be holding their collective breath as the story reaches its conclusion, knowing what constitutes a happy ending to this story, and wanting desperately for Sherry to know that, too. "SherryBaby" is a triumph because, like its spiky, soft, difficult main character, it earns every bit of our respect and, finally, love.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company