Maggie Gyllenhaal is a sight to behold.
Regardless of what role she plays, she never fails to be riveting, leaving behind any sense of an identity existing outside what you see on the screen. She's an extremely physical actress, always inhabiting the body of her character. I can't help but watching her posture, her gestures. The way she slumps her shoulders can make dialogue obsolete.
In Sherrybaby, Gyllenhaal plays a woman who has been in jail for three years, where she has kicked her heroin habit and hopefully gotten herself on the right track. Newly paroled, Sherry needs to find a job and stay clean so she can take over the care of her daughter (Ryan Simpkins, one of the "Wonder Showzen" kids). The young girl, Alexis, has been living with Sherry's brother, Bobby (Brad William Henke, Hollywoodland), and his wife, Lynette (Bridget Barka, Everyday People), and she barely knows her real mother. Likewise, Sherry has been away so long, it's hard to say how much she knows herself.
As Gyllenhaal plays it, Sherry's body language changes with her personality, morphing to fit the needs of a given situation. When she needs to turn on the sex appeal, she's all confidence, standing up straight and swaying her hips; yet, when she's trying to convince her brother to let her come over and see her daughter, her body folds in on itself. An instant later, she might be violent, Gyllenhaal's lanky frame suddenly becoming threatening and poised to strike. When her father (Sam Bottoms, Winter Passing) pays the family a visit, she climbs on the couch and begins jumping around like a little kid, eager for attention. She seduces authority either literally or by sucking it up and towing the line. Seeing her flip these switches, you'd almost think there is nothing Sherry can't handle.
Except Laurie Collyer's film is about one woman learning that there is plenty she can't handle. Sherrybaby isn't a feel-good picture full of easy answers. Sherry is going to have a hard time reestablishing her life. People have a right to be suspicious of her, as many of these changes in personality are her relying on old tricks and cons. She's mercurial because if you stand in her way, she's going to figure out how to pull you around to her side. Lynette, for instance, resents Sherry showing back up in their lives, but by letting her sister-in-law do her make-up, Sherry momentarily gets her to come around. It's when people stand their ground that Sherry is forced to come clean. At one point, when confronted by her parole officer (the always excellent Giancarlo Esposito, Do the Right Thing), she even opts for telling the truth. It's a step in the right direction.
Thankfully, just as Collyer doesn't strive for simplistic solutions to her main character's problems, she also doesn't completely vilify the woman, either. This is where Gyllenhaal probably gives her director the greatest gift. If this role were played by an actress we didn't believe, whom we didn't want to like, there's no way we could stick with her for the whole story. As a character, Sherry will inspire just as much frustration as she does sympathy, possibly more. It's because Maggie Gyllenhaal can sell the difference between the honest moments and the fake ones so well that we can distinguish that Sherry is someone worth rooting for. The performance is what keeps this movie from being just a standard flick about someone getting their life together.
Sherrybaby isn't always an easy film. It can be rather stressful watching Sherry teeter close to the edge or seeing glimpses into past mistreatment that probably contributed to her making such wrong choices in life. Collyer doesn't dress up her sets, but sticks to the grime of the inner city and the cold fašade of the suburbs. Her commitment to keeping it real is her greatest strength, though, and she holds firm all the way to the end. Other filmmakers might have played it for the big emotion, but Collyer stays small, packing a satisfying emotional punch without selling her own story out.