The best performance by an actress in a 2006 movie that you most likely haven’t seen was by Maggie Gyllenhaal in Sherrybaby. After debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2006, the low-budget independent film had a small theatrical release last September in a handful of cities.
Nevertheless, such limited exposure did not prevent Gyllenhaal’s performance from being noticed—particularly by the Hollywood Foreign Press, which gave her a Golden Globe nomination.And now, with the release of Sherrybaby on DVD, many more viewers finally will be able to see what the fuss is all about. (Unfortunately, the DVD doesn’t offer any extras beyond the movie, except for the theatrical trailer.)
Gyllenhaal plays Sherry Swanson, a former heroin addict who has just been paroled from prison after serving three years for petty theft. She’s trying to put her life back together and, in particular, re-establish her relationship with her daughter, who is now five and has been living with her brother and sister-in-law. (The child’s father is long gone.) Writer-director Laurie Collyer has given Gyllenhaal a showy role but a difficult one.
Her character generates empathy. Viewers can’t help but be sympathetic to the difficulties faced by a young parolee—living in a group home of ex-convicts; reporting to an overworked, hard-nosed parole officer; trying to get a job; dealing with renewed cravings for drugs and alcohol, and working out a new relationship not only with her daughter but with her relatives who have cared for and grown to love the little girl.
Yet Sherry is hardly a saint, and despite the hardships she faces she can’t escape her own self-destructive tendencies. In a raw and unsparing performance, Gyllenhaal lets us see the hair-trigger temper, the promiscuity and the sharp-tongued brazenness masking the low self-esteem and neediness that most likely got Sherry into trouble years earlier and that place her in jeopardy again.
The self-protective narcissism that probably enabled Sherry to survive prison makes her ill-equipped to recognize the new relationship her daughter, Alexis, played by the very natural Ryan Simpkins, has made with her brother Bobby (Brad William Henke) and sister-in-law (Bridget Barkan).
Henke is terrific as a loyal brother torn between the love he retains for his troubled and troublesome sister, his love for his wife, who has given Alexis the affection and nurturing the little girl needs, and his own love he has developed for the child.
Giancarlo Esposito gives a solid performance, in a tough-love kind of way, as Sherry’s parole officer, and Danny Trejo shines as a former addict/alcoholic who becomes Sherry’s most loyal friend.
The movie’s only false note is saddling Sherry with a disturbing father (Sam Bottoms) whose past relationship with her, revealed in one difficult to watch silent gesture, seems to suggest a pat and predictable explanation for her behavior. But one comes away from Sherrybaby marveling at Gyllenhaal’s performance, particularly her courage as an actress and willingness to leave little about Sherry left unexposed.