Maggie Gyllenhaal’s role choices are so invariably praised, in magazine profile after magazine profile, as “risky” that they begin to reek of calculation — a cultivated alterna-ingénue persona. And what’s a more calculated risk than Laurie Collyer’s Sherrybaby, an award show goodie bagful of junkie’s redemption, not-without-my-daughter flailing, and for-the-sake-of-the-character nudity? Except that Gyllenhaal’s performance as Sherry Swanson — a 23-year-old recovering smackhead striding out of prison and back into her daughter’s life with an armful of presents, soul-baring confessions poured out over the preschooler’s head, and an esteem for her maternal abilities unaltered by her own stunted neediness — is a total banishment of self-awareness. Immersed in her blind-flying character’s barest moments of entitlement and miscalculation, Gyllenhaal’s the unrestrained engine of her own star vehicle.
Too bad it’s got the body of a Ford Taurus — carefully if awkwardly constructed, utilitarian and commonplace. The assembly line provides: a mistrustful sister-in-law and conflicted brother; a black, take-no-crap parole officer and worldly N.A. sponsor/lover (the latter is Danny Trejo, who’s not somebody one expects to see having a sex scene with Maggie Gyllenhaal); a shameful family secret/relapse trigger that, having posited a reductive source of Sherry’s ills, is never addressed again; unintegrated mentions of Sherry’s renewed religious faith likely included out of a perceived obligation to sociological verisimilitude.
Collyer’s also an uncertain first-time director, elongating scenes to insert bits of naturalism into a screenplay whose beats come with an outline’s clarity. As such, it’s tempting to view Sherrybaby as the mostly tentative fleshing-out of her bone-close portrait of the addict as oblivious self-saboteur. In the meantime, there’s consolation in an uplifting ending, hard-earned enough to resonate — and a performance worthy of the accolades it probably would have received regardless. Opens September 8