(26/07/07) – Since they co-starred in Richard Kelly’s cult item Donnie Darko, film-lovers around the world have taken note of the considerable acting chops of the Gyllenhaal siblings. Younger brother Jake Gyllenhaal subsequently conquered the hearts of mainstream audiences around the world as well as an Oscar-nomination as the romantic bottom in Brokeback Mountain, while his older sister Maggie has been steadily gaining prominence through her work in independent US films such as Secretary, Happy Endings and Adaptation before moving on to more mainstream projects such as Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, the Will Ferrell comedy Stranger Than Fiction and the upcoming Batman film The Dark Knight. Before these mainstream ventures she headlined her umpteenth indie, SherryBaby, in which she plays the title role. Laurie Collyer’s tale of a girl on the mend won Best Film and Best Actress accolades at last year’s Karlovy Vary Film Festival.

SherryBaby still sees Gyllenhaal in what could still be described as a typical US indie about a recovering alcoholic and drug-addict who has just been released on parole. There is only one twist (small though not insignificant): she is also the mother of the young Alexis (Ryan Simpkins), who has been raised by Sherry’s brother Bobby (Brad William Henke) and his wife Lynette (Bridget Barkan) when Sherry spent time in jail.

Gyllenhaal, in a fearless performance, gives us someone who is unafraid when it comes to her daughter, and recognises and accepts the fact that she has made mistakes. When mother and daughter meet again for the first time after Sherry’s release and have gone through the obligatory "Hi mommy", "Hi baby" moments, Sherry only wants to get one thing off her chest: why mommy was away. "I went to jail because I did a bad thing," she says, "Do you know what that is?"

It is important for Sherry to get things straight, since she would like to start again tabula rasa. Is she being selfish for telling her daughter, or just honest? It would seem that Sherry does not necessarily know what her brother and his wife have told Alexis about her being gone, which is symptomatic of a much larger problem which only gradually dawns on Sherry: she cannot simply pick up where she left off. It may seem to her that life stopped while she was incarcerated, but time did not stop for her daughter and her daughter’s surrogate family.

SherryBaby‘s emotionally most effective scene is at the very end of the film, and involves an honest talk between brother and sister. It is a shame that the rest of the film often prefers cliches and unimaginative scenes over some much-needed emotional honesty. From its opening montage set to forgettable American guitar pop to its checklist-like inclusion of each major race that roams the American indies if not exactly its streets Latino? Check. Black? Check. American Indian? Check. And they’re all good folk too…

The trouble with SherryBaby is that it is often more concerned with getting everything right according to American indie catechism rather than trying to probe its characters and situations for emotional truths that might elevate the film from its humble roots to worthwhile drama.

SherryBaby is released in the UK tomorrow, 27 July.