The beauty of Laurie Collyer’s Sherrybaby is that Sherry (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is impossible to like. She’s selfish, childish, irresponsible, and unfailingly untrustworthy, yet becomes fully realized as an authentic creation because she resists easy stereotype. She may talk about getting her daughter back, or living the clean life, or staying out of trouble, but we never really believe her. Yet without histrionics, or hyperbole, or melodramatic turns of the screw, Sherry conveys this despair in such a way that even she’s aware of her limitations. Sure, this is not a complete film, or even bold, new ground, but by staying true to this woman’s limited world — where every hour is a struggle against temptation — it succeeds on its own terms, without resorting to phony uplift or last-minute revelations of character. Sherry is a criminally stupid individual, but not so much that she keeps empathy entirely at bay. No, we don’t want her to get her child back, but whatever she might become, we hope there’s a shred of decency awaiting her next roll of the dice. Her life will never be roses and rainbows, but perhaps there’s a possibility that she will carve out a modestly tolerable patch of earth for her survival. To expect anything more is pure fantasy, though it is undoubtedly wise to expect far, far less.
When we first meet Sherry, she is arriving home (New Jersey) after a stint in prison for what she admits is theft surrounding her heroin addiction. The crucifix around her neck is a dead giveaway to her plight (which she later confirms by saying her prayers and reading the Bible), as few people living as they should ever resort to such desperate symbols of redemption. In other words, it is usually the sinners who are reminding the world of their presumed piety. As part of her parole, she enters a facility called Genesis House, which she hastily deems to be worse than prison. Within hours, though, she is fucking the founder of the program, which should surprise no one, as this is a woman trained from childhood to believe that she has nothing else to offer a man (she doesn’t). It’s wise that the character of the director is never seen again, as it takes but one scene to establish the utter futility of these so-called treatment centers, especially when those trusted to help are encouraging the very behavior that led to incarceration. Sherry, bleach-blond and dressed like a streetwalker, is immediately unpopular with the other female residents, though the film demonstrates this in short snippets, rather than belaboring the point too far. A quick, intense confrontation is enough to establish that Sherry is better off somewhere else, though her only real alternative is arguably worse.
Sherry then visits her brother Bobby (Brad William Henke) and his wife, who have been taking care of Sherry’s child while she served her prison sentence. The reunion is quietly effective, and speaks more to a buried tension that remains just out of reach. Even the first scene between mother and child is subdued, and Sherry is quite frank about the reason for her absence. Still, we know that this relationship is all but severed, and Bobby has helped push the child along by instructing her to call her mother Sherry, as if she’s a mere friend. Sherry is appalled by this, of course, but it’s the wise move, as no woman in the midst of recovery — especially one as weak as Sherry — should ever be accountable for children. Supervised visits are acceptable, but overall, she’s blown it; her one chance to live up to her obligations was thrown away the second she pulled out the needle. Again, a lesser film might have stacked the deck so that we root for Sherry to clean up and get her kid back, but at no point do we believe she’s up to the job. Even in her daughter’s presence, she is child-like herself; uncertain, cautious, and indecisive. She could no more raise this girl than run a Fortune 500 company.
Despite Sherry’s frequent cries for second chances, she’s more than realistic about her options. Required to get a job, she knows she has neither the will nor the skill to do anything heavy, so she pleads for a job involving children, which as we know is the one fail-safe for otherwise unemployable tarts. The social worker is hesitant, so Sherry stands up straight, pulls out her tits, and says, quite matter-of-factly, “I’ll suck your dick if you give me the job I want.” And so she does. It’s a savagely humorous scene in many ways (is this not how it’s done?), but most of all, it’s Sherry’s open admission of failure, spread out over a lifetime, concentrated on this single moment in time. She really doesn’t want to work for her bread, so she’ll do whatever is necessary to avoid the labor most of us are stuck with. Sherry is then set up at the Catholic Charities Youth Organization, doing what appears to be horsing around with inner city kids and singing the occasional song. Perhaps the movie is pointing out that she can be good with the young ones, but I’d like to think that this is about all she can handle. Needless to say, acting like a nitwit while playing patty cake is a far cry from the endless toil that constitutes parenthood. But for a woman like Sherry, it’s all about the highs: playtime, Happy Meals, and laughter for all. Tears, pain, and discipline, however, would send her into a quivering mass of shit-faced fear.
Sherry appears to do everything by the book — 12-step, drug tests, checking in with the parole officer — but she can’t shake the desire for heroin, which she tries to subdue with endless rounds of cigarettes and mindless sex with a fellow recovering addict. Interestingly enough, it is this man, Dean (Danny Trejo) who represents a bit of normalcy for Sherry, though he does not become the angelic presence that seems to be obligatory in any story of addiction. He’s a decent enough sort, but hardly prioritizes Sherry, preferring to be present, but not exclusive (at one point, he asks her to come back in twenty minutes so he can finish up with someone else). Sherry and Dean are “involved” in their own way, but there’s no future in it, as only desperation and the lack of anything better to do brought them together in the first place. It’s a passing fancy in the life of a recovering addict — a signpost, if you will — that may mean something more, but just as likely does not. And let’s face it, addicts don’t have relationships as much as they do “experiences”; fleeting moments of distraction that fade away once reality beckons. Addicts want to wallow and flail in shared degradation, not be given a glimpse of possibility. She’d flee the second she realized he had moved on from his habit.
It is at her daughter’s birthday party that we come to understand Sherry’s problem, though the scene lasts but a few seconds. Shattered by her child’s indifference, Sherry seeks her father’s consolation, only to have him take liberties by placing his hands on her breasts. Clearly on familiar ground, it is obvious that Sherry had been abused, but rather than exchange words in a crescendo of accusation and regret, she runs from the house and, desperately, looks for a quick fix. Perhaps the connection is too pat (Sherry is a whore and a junkie because daddy nuzzled under the covers during her childhood), but it is no less accurate in its familiarity. I imagine there are people who slip into abuse and depression for no good reason at all, but a dire self-loathing borne of youthful physical and/or sexual torment is the usual culprit. Experimentation and weekend flings are a different, and often harmless animal, but addiction is always a deliberate, calculated slide into slow suicide. Again, none of these plot turns are surprising or novel, but the manner in which they are presented retains a unique dignity.
The result is not a “story” so much as a few days of life as it is lived; a glimpse of humanity that has no real meaning or purpose, except the unavoidable truth that yes, this is how some of us spend our days. And though at first the film’s conclusion seemed rushed and unnaturally sudden, it is obvious that the events as witnessed had no other possible course. Sherry appears headed back to prison (she’s violated parole and as such, either accepts in-patient treatment or a return to finish out her sentence), but could she be planning an escape? Perhaps an overdose? Obviously, some addicts get quality care and change their lives, but many others do not. At the very least, then, do not oversimplify the case and make it seem as if mere pluck (or Jesus) is the answer. Better to state that addicts fail and fail and fail again, leaving destruction and sadness in their wake, than present a well-lit road where love will conquer all. Sherry isn’t much of a character — she isn’t much of a human being, after all — and though it would be easy to dismiss her as trash, there’s something in the minimalism to suggest a deeper, more complex appreciation. She’s not a poet, or an artist-in-waiting; just a sick woman defined by her habit, having little to guide her save the escape of that momentary rush.