(10/01/08) – Sherry Swanson (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has been released early from prison after serving three years and is put on probation. Now fully clean after a heroin habit which led to her stealing, she is determined to get her life back on track and to win the love of her young daughter Alexei, who is now being cared for by her brother and his wife. However, Sherry finds the path to normality and some kind of equilibrium is a difficult one and she encounters obstacles everywhere she goes – a strict probation officer, bullies at the hostel and an untrusting family. Alexei has come to harbour an understated mistrust of her mother and this emotional aspect is central to the story.

Following 1999’s Nuyorican Dream, this second film in the career of director Laurie Collyer had its first major screening at Sundance early in 2006. Sherrybaby was subsequently elevated to worldwide attention at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival that year when it won awards for Best Actress (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and the main Crystal Globe award for Best Film. After a limited release in the US that September, in December 2006 Gyllenhaal was nominated for the Golden Globe in the category of Best Actress in a dramatic film. In 2007 the film has had continued success both in film festivals and theatrical releases, including a release in the UK.

Like Nuyorican Dream, the premise of Sherrybaby is in detailing how drugs have implications on ordinary people’s lives. Where Nuyorican Dream highlighted many issues – immigrants in the US, drugs, gays – here it solely focuses on the consequences of drug addiction on families but, rather than attribute blame or guilt, seeks to explain how Sherry sought refuge in drugs in the first place. Because of this we progressively come to sympathise with her character, particularly when key events of her past slowly come to the fore.

Sherrybaby was inspired by a friend of the director who she was fortunate enough to meet again and interview as an adult. Though her script was fictionalised, Collyer was faithful to the same trials and tribulations that her friend had suffered. However, she also admits that some of the harshness of the original script was softened. Regards acting style, Maggie Gyllenhaal could assume a younger version of Melanie Griffith’s more offbeat work. As a reference point Forever Lulu (2000) comes to mind. In fact these films aren’t too dissimilar aside from the fact that Sherry is a younger drug addict as opposed to an older schizophrenic played by Griffiths with both estranged mothers trying to win back the love of their child.

The character of young Alexei is central to the film and confirmation that Sherry is spending all her time fighting her demons, thus giving her something to live and strive for. The other supporting characters underline that Sherry finds less sympathy within her family than in the drug rehabilitation centre, particularly in the Dean Walker character (Danny Trejo in an unusual role) as only he can understand her dependence on and attempts to stay off drugs. Though Dean is not emotionally dependent (Sherry discovers he sees other women), his character is a yardstick for Sherry as he has moved further down the line in his rehabilitation.

The most disturbing revelation in Sherrybaby is to find that her father, who comes across in much of the film as a regular family guy, had sexually abused his daughter as a child and this is revealed in a later scene where he is initially comforting then starts to fondle her before Sherry walks away devastated. The director wanted to include this disturbing scene because she learned the statistic that 75-80% of women prisoners had been either abused or raped at some point in their lifetime.

The extras include the usual theatrical trailer and a Film Four interview with Maggie Gyllenhaal. This is an honest interview interspersed with scenes from the film. She is very honest about herself as an actor and the part of Sherry. Gyllenhaal also admits that she and Laurie Collyer had differences during the shoot but that she had much admiration and love for her too. The other extras include an interview with the actor Danny Trejo who talks about his role as Dean Walker and Sherry in relation to real-life social problems. He adds that Maggie Gyllenhaal is a wonderful actress.

Laurie Collyer’s directorial approach, while serious in tone and arguably not as offbeat as many of her contemporary independent directors (think Susan Seidelman, Sofia Coppola or Miranda July), also has a straightforward independent style that is accessible and suitable for more mainstream fare. Should she pursue this direction it will inevitably bring her to a wider audience.

The DVD of Sherrybaby is out now. Please follow the link provided and support Kamera by doing so.