Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a young ex-con trying to reclaim the child who's nearly forgotten her in "Sherrybaby," first narrative feature from writer-director Laurie Collyer (terrif 2000 docu "Nuyorican Dream"). This unadorned, largely downbeat tale is the kind of starkly realistic, small-scale drama that's always a difficult theatrical sell. But a combination of fest acclaim, good reviews and marketing emphasis on the star's exposed-nerve performance may be enough to draw discerning viewers in limited arthouse release.
Sherry Swanson (Gyllenhaal) is just out after three years in stir on a drug-related robbery conviction; she's sober, carries a Bible, and is determined to straighten up and fly right. But the way she carries and dresses herself -- does she own anything beyond short-shorts and halter tops? -- suggests a personality that, for all its hard edges, has in many ways failed to mature past age 16, when she started using heroin.
Before being sentenced at 22, she gave birth to a child, whose father ran off, leaving Sherry's brother Bobby (Brad William Henke) and sister-in-law Lynette (Bridget Barkan) to raise the sprig. Now Sherry wants to assume her place as little Alexis' (Ryan Simpkins) newly returned, reliable mother.
Their first reunion goes more smoothly than one would expect, with Lexi excited and affectionate. But subsequent visits -- and their infrequency -- grow problematic. Lynette clearly considers herself the child's de facto mother at this point, seeing Sherry as a disruptive influence. Sherry lacks diplomacy; she's impatient and frustrated by the fact that people around her continue to hope for the best and expect the worst, rather than trusting her.
That they're right in doing so provides the story with its low-key climactic epiphany.
Sherry enjoys sex, but is also willing to use it to get what she wants, as when she services an employment official to get a job working with children. There's a disturbing revelation as to where that behavior came from in Sherry's too-physical interactions with her and Bobby's seemingly harmless Dad (Sam Bottoms).
Yet a good job, NA meetings and the measured compassion of 12-step veteran Dean (Danny Trejo, playing a good guy for a change) aren't enough to prevent her from caving in when things don't go her way.
Stopping short of the tragic -- indeed even allowing a small, realistic sense of hope at the close, "Sherrybaby" is nonetheless often cringe-inducing as its heroine haplessly stumbles into one self-defeating trap after another.
Gyllenhaal, in her most substantial role since "Secretary," does a fine, unshowy job of limning Sherry's faults without alienating the viewer or pleading for sympathy. Cast is strong, from the protag's wary, thoroughly suburban relatives to Trejo's credibly been-there, done-that ex-gangbanger. Gyllenhaal's scenes with Simpkins are so naturalistic (though the child thesp does occasionally glance at the camera) they must've been semi-improvised.
Unhurried yet tightly penned and paced effort sports solid, unobtrusive tech and design contribs.
Camera (color, HD), Russell Fine; editors, Curtiss Clayton, Joe Landauer; music, Jack Livesey; production designer, Stephen J. Beatrice; set decorator, Lisa Scoppa; costume designer, Jill Newell; sound (Dolby Digital), Ira Spiegel, Marlena Grzaslewicz; assistant director, Carrie Fix; casting, Cindy Tolan. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 22, 2006. Running time: 95 MIN.