Unflinchingly absorbing from the first scene to the last, Maggie Gyllenhaal brings a candid, earthy aura to "Sherrybaby," her most impressive acting vehicle up to this point. New to DVD, this gut-wrenching look at an ex-convict's struggle to establish control over her life truly sizzles.
Any doubt of Gyllenhaal's abilities is erased only minutes into the film. At the drop of a hat, she makes Sherry Swanson turn from sexual to vulnerable, violent to passive, indifferent to invested, self-assured to insecure. Through it all, she is endearing enough to win over even the most ignorant viewers - the kind who shield their eyes when real-life Sherrys pass them on the street.
When we first meet her, she saunters off the bus in Newark, finally home after three years in prison. Contrasting with the business suits that surround her skimpy strawberry blonde get-up, she hollers after a man merely for brushing against her in a hurry to cross the street; the unfolding of a misfit begins.
Parole Officer Hernandez is played by the ever-brilliant Giancarlo Esposito, who has a knack for playing deceivingly straightforward authority figures. Appropriately hard-headed in his treatment of Sherry yet sympathetic to her misfortune, his character provides a three-dimensional look at the work of those who look after prisoners post-incarceration.
Sherry's heart-rending yet uneasy reunion with her tiny daughter Alexis, portrayed by Ryan Simpkins, sets the stage for the crux of the plot. Having been raised during her mother's incarceration by Sherry's brother Bobby and his wife Lynette, played by Brad William Henke and Bridget Barkan, Alexis is thrown a curveball when her mother suddenly arrives. With an ability to act natural on screen, Simpkins makes Alexis a fully realized character despite her extreme youth, underscoring key plot elements with a pure, uncensored nature par for the course in young children.
Fully intent on being a better mother, Sherry collides with her brother and sister-in-law, who closely regulate her interactions with Alexis out of legitimate concern. When she realizes they have instructed Alexis to address her not as "mommy" but as simply Sherry, tremendous tension ensues, finally ballooning out of control. Sensing the tension between the three adults, the toddler breaks down in tears, unsure of her position at an age when it is all she has to rely on. The juxtaposition of Sherry's urban life with her family's quiet existence in suburban Mountainside underscores their inevitable differences.
Dominant male figures are perhaps overly important to Sherry's definition of herself. Her relationship with her father, wisely underplayed by Sam Bottoms, is more pivotal than first meets the eye, providing context for her conflicted past. She also develops a relationship with recovered addict Dean, played by Danny Trejo, who becomes an unlikely anchor with his wizened, world-weary outlook.
It's easy to dismiss Sherry as someone who is raunchy and immoral, but an attentive viewing reveals the reasons behind her complexities. Gyllenhaal draws her character like an artist draws a painting, giving her depth and dimension that takes the viewer deeper and deeper in as the plot progresses. To call her a fearless actress would be an understatement.
Gyllenhaal fronts a top-notch cast in this gritty, unglamorous slice of life. For powerful acting, an engrossing story and wall-to-wall on-location shots of New Jersey to boot, "Sherrybaby" delivers the goods hand over fist.