When it comes to movies about American lowlifes, there's the truth and then there's "truth." The truth is, people really do get hooked on drugs, lose custody of their children, get sexually abused by family members, and suffer the snap judgments of potential employers. "Truth," though, is what happens when well-meaning filmmakers and actors try to turn this reality into drama, with all the attendant conventions and clichés.
Writer-director Laurie Collyer places her Sherrybaby somewhere between those poles, though it's closer to truth than "truth." The story of a junkie ex-con (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) trying to get clean and get her life together, so she can reclaim her kindergarten-aged daughter from her brother, the film falls into all kind of indie traps: It's got the strummy guitar soundtrack, the extended slide into miserabilism, and even an icky moment of pop irony when Gyllenhaal stands up at a family dinner and sings The Bangles' "Eternal Flame." When our heroine lands a job at a pre-school by offering to suck off the guy at the employment agency, Sherrybaby looks like it's headed straight to phonyville.
But Gyllenhaal holds the movie together with her performance, long enough for Collyer to get the story to a place where she can put her star to good use. Gyllenhaal's flippant air and nimble shifts to stark vulnerability really put across her character, who hasn't figured out that being selfless is the most important part of being a good person. Gyllenhaal's character wants too badly to be the center of attention, even if for the wrong reasons. In Sherrybaby's best scenes, Collyer just lies back and observes the way Gyllenhaal flicks cigarette ashes in her hand rather than ask her tight-assed sister-in-law for an ashtray, and the way she looks stung when she sees her daughter whispering secrets to her in-laws that she'd never share with her mom.
Sherrybaby builds to a genuinely tense finale that, considered objectively, is guilty of the worst kind of cheap sentiment and sensationalism. But Collyer and Gyllenhaal make it work by focusing on behavior more than plot. Theirs is a well-worn story that may not need to be told, but they do tell it well.