Watch an indie drama such as Sherrybaby and you may react like poet Allen Ginsberg: "I saw the greatest acting talents of a generation, starving, hysterical, naked, dragging themselves through grubby locations looking for a fix. Or an Independent Spirit Award." Independent films and rising young actors seem addicted to tales of junkies and drunks, and you can practically write a checklist of the movies' big moments: weeping, spitting up, demeaning sex acts, profane public tantrums, stoic substance abuse, etc.
Maybe so many indie-junkie films get made because they're relatively inexpensive while drawing important artists and showy performances. A film such as Half Nelson shows the genre at its best, with Ryan Gosling offering some of 2006's best acting as a crack-addicted inner-city teacher. In Sherrybaby, Maggie Gyllenhaal nearly matches Gosling as an ex-con trying to renew ties with her young daughter while trying to live down her former life as a stripper and heroin addict. Gyllenhaal recently won a Golden Globe nomination for best actress, but Sherrybaby was never released in Atlanta; its DVD release on Jan. 23 should help compensate for that oversight.
In previous films, such as Secretary, Gyllenhaal usually gives sly, subtle, internalized performances, but as Sherrybaby's Sherry Swanson, she proves remarkably open, spontaneous and un-self-conscious. Often immodestly dressed -- if she's dressed at all -- Sherry frequently relies on her sex appeal when faced with obstacles or new situations, as if her "default mode" is seduction in its most blunt, unromantic fashion.
As Sherry panics that her brother's family is trying to phase her out of the life of her daughter Alexis (Ryan Simpkins), she shows poor impulse control, alternating between raging outbursts and uncomfortable bids for attention. In the middle of a family dinner she sings an unwanted, tone-deaf version of "Eternal Flame," but Gyllenhaal persistently cultivates our empathy for a woman who's generally difficult to like.
First-time writer/director Laurie Collyer persuasively presents such settings as halfway houses, AA meetings and dreary employment agencies, and Laurence Fishburne provides a convincing role as a no-nonsense probation officer. But the tone frequently proves heavy-handed, with people being mean or impatient with Sherry so we'll sympathize with her. Though Sherrybaby doesn't resort to a contrived or histrionic resolution, the plot ultimately feels too small and anecdotal. Sherrybaby won't hook all viewers, but watching Gyllenhaal's performance can get anyone high.
Sherrybaby. ***** Directed by Laurie Collyer. Stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ryan Simpkins. Rated R. On DVD Jan. 23.
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