Secretary DVD
Cinema Signal:

Life After Prison

. "Sherrybaby"

Whatever became of the "Secretary?" You know, that game gal of the 2002 surprise hit who went along with her boss's fetishes and captured the hearts of millions. It showed how appealing a brave, daring (and sweet) spirit can be, even when materializing somewhere beyond the mainstream. All right, I'm speaking for myself here, but I'm also speaking of spunky, straight-ahead, earthy Maggie Gyllenhaal who has been appearing in her share of ensemble pieces ("Casa de los babys," "The Great New Wonderful") and supporting roles ("Adaptation," "Mona Lisa Smile") ever since. And then, of course, there's "World Trade Center." This is a real working actress and an increasingly imnportant on, but where are the starring roles she so richly deserves--the ones some of us have been waiting for?

Well, duck--they're suddenly coming at us with double barrels. First it's "Trust the Man," a romantic comedy and another ensemble piece, albeit one in which she has a more prominent role. This is followed with a Gyllenhaal film in a quite different vein that I promise will tap into regions of your empathetic mind and capacity to be affected by a performance of conviction. This is "Sherrybaby," a character study of a paroled junkie mother. What the actress does with it is so fully invested and fascinating, despite a one-note screenplay, she fulfills all the promise of her debut role and takes us on a new trip into the wrinkles of bad choices. It's good enough to make us think it's been worth the wait.

Writer-director Laurie Collyer ("Nuyorican Dream") picks up her story of Sherry Swanson (Gyllenhaal) just as she gets paroled from a drug-related jail term and returns home to New Jersey. She's no innocent, and doesn't try to act like one. She's street smart and far tougher than she looks, strolling around in her sexy short outfits and determined to stay straight with her parole officer (Giancarlo Esposito) who likes to keep his charges on a short leash.

What's truly at stake isn't just freedom--it's daughter 8-year old Alexis (Ryan Simpkins) who has been taken care of by bother Bobby (Brad William Henke) and his wife Marcia (Kate Burton) during the 3-year jailhouse stint. Now, motherhood is what it's all about for Sherry, and she knows she needs to get a job, keep it, stay clean, and... win her child over. Simple. Yeah.

As though she doesn't already have a big mountain to climb, Marcia, out of a distorted and possessive love for the child, is the primary obstacle. She wants to control things and goes to the extent of telling Alexis to refer to her mother as Sherry rather than "mom." When Alexis does, it emits waves of panic and self doubt into Sherry.

But self doubt isn't something that affects this case-hardened realist for very long, and she throws it off quicker than a weak fix. She does what it takes to gain some positive traction, taking up with a surprisingly sensitive and understanding fellow addict from her support group (Danny Trejo); and calling upon Bobby's brotherly love to give her a chance with her child.

Before this ends, as engaged as we are in the resolute determination of this tough babe who looks a lot like an icon for America's girl-next-door, with the up-turned nose and blue-grey eyes that pierce like lit-crystal, we realize not only how far down into the depressing world of the addict we've been taken but that the scope of the story is restrained within tight, slightly wearisome boundaries.

Why is this a problem? I theorize that the narrative is a wee bit too much like life, which can be grindingly narrow in focus and relentlessly unforgiving. Life, too, tends to be repetitive and molded by habits that resist change, sometimes to an annoying degree. There's just enough of that here to elongate the theme of a troubled woman, even if she's a take-no-prisoners type who allows no one to decide who and what she is. Fortunately, the stunning portrayal and the compassionate content of Collyer's writing combine to remove the cliches associated with the subject. It leaves us with the feeling of having had a cold dose of reality--but you'll forgive me if I don't want to get addicted to it.

The supporting cast includes Sam Bottoms as Sherry's idiot father and Rio Hackford as Andy, the director of the 12-step program with whom Sherry satisfies a pent up need.

Once Hollywood producers and directors again clap eyes on the uniqueness Ms. G can bring into a challenging context, we might just get as much of her as we do Jennifer Anniston, Kate Hudson, Katie Holmes, and all those whose ranges don't exhibit a similar level of panache in this kind of "edgy" territory. "Secretary," probably made them nervous about Gyllenhaal and I'd guess casting people have been scratching their heads over the prospect of handing her a lead role. But, now "Sherrybaby" may well provide them another shot at envisioning the possibilities. It makes one wonder what studio honchos need in order to recognize a bright light in their presence, an Oscar nomination? Well, I don't want to throw a hex on anybody, but... well see if you don't agree with me that there's a chance here for Maggie G. to cop one with this commanding performance.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner


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i fell in love with maggie in secretary.she is the sexest,and most talanted out there.

                                                           ~~ scott f. 

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Ryan Simpkins and Maggie Gyllenhaal
Can a mother's love keep you away from the needle?
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