'Sherrybaby': emotional downpour

In 'Sherrybaby,' a recovering drug addict tries to get custody of her baby.

In "Sherrybaby," Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Sherry Swanson, a recovering heroin addict who has just been released from prison after serving three years for robbery. She is a very old 22.

Sherry is looking forward to cleaning up her life and regaining custody of her young daughter Alexis (Ryan Simpkins) who has been cared for by her brother Bobby (Brad William Henke) and his wife Lynn (Bridget Barkan).

This probably sounds like yet another dreary problem drama but there's nothing dreary about it. Writer-director Laurie Collyer makes her dramatic debut here following "Nuyorican Dream," her documentary about a poor Puerto Rican family. She has a vivid eye for detail and the small, telling human moments that make a movie resonate with audiences. I wish the camera weren't so often in motion – it's a dubious technique for imparting "realism" – but it's understandable that a former documentarian would want to capture everything as if it were happening right in front of our eyes.

Collyer didn't need to manufacture momentum because her performers already have it. Gyllenhaal certainly does. She is in practically every frame of the film and yet you never tire of her because she has such immediacy. Her street smarts come into play instinctively when she is around people because she trusts no one.

To a large extent she is right not to trust. Her brother is wary around her and his wife is more than that: Very soon it becomes clear that she wants to keep Alexis, and you can't entirely blame her. One reason Sherry doesn't trust anybody is because she doesn't trust herself. She's always on the verge of relapsing and the crisis over Alexis's custody is enough to send her over the edge.

Sherry is from a solid middle-class family, although when we see the family members together the cracks in the facade are glaringly apparent. Sherry is a well-to-do addict, of which there are surprisingly few examples in the movies. The indignity of her situation is compounded by how far she has fallen. But misery has made her a true democrat. She sees people strictly for who they are – class, position mean nothing. The strongest friendship she develops is with a fellow addict and ex-con, a big-boned native American (Danny Trejo) who doesn't care where she comes from either.

"Sherrybaby" is a kind of companion piece to Olivier Assayas's "Clean," which came out earlier this year and starred Maggie Cheung as an ex-addict trying to reconnect with her child. But, in Gyllenhaal's all-out performance, it reminded me most of Judy Davis in "High Tide," another movie directed by a woman (Gillian Armstrong) about a misfit mother and her daughter. It has the same fierce honesty. Grade: A–

"Sherrybaby" is not rated, but the subject matter is intended for mature audiences.

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