'SherryBaby' follows recovering heroin addict Sherry Swanson as she tries to adapt to life after a three-year stint in prison and reconnect with her young, estranged daughter. The film is propelled by Maggie Gyllenhaal as the struggling protagonist, who puts in an astonishing, nuanced performance in this grimly realistic film.
Having just been released after serving time for a drug-related theft, the wayward daughter returns to her hometown to reclaim her place as mother to Alexis (Simpkins).
Her hopes of an effortless transition to her maternal role quickly dissipate when she realises that her brother's wife, Lynette (Barkan), has become more of a mother to Alexis in her absence.
Sherry is eager to prove herself worthy of her daughter's affections and sets about finding a job, which she succeeds in doing through dubious means, all the while fighting the temptation to fall back into her drug habit.
She forges a tentative relationship with Dean (Trejo), a fellow recovering addict and ex-convict, but director Laurie Collyer does not resort to a typically redemptive love plot. Instead, their relationship is handled with a subtlety that is distinctive of the film. It is satisfyingly ambiguous, with scenes of understated tenderness.
Her relationship with her daughter is equally well dealt with, characterised by Sherry adopting childlike behaviour to try and win Alexis' love. Her longing to be a good mother, bordering on desperation, underscores the film's emotional impact.
We are given a brief, but grating, insight into the probable cause of Sherry's early rebelliousness, promiscuity and drug dependency. This is the film's only misstep, as it bluntly uncovers the sinister relationship she has with her father with none of the delicacy that we have become accustomed to.
However, this is a small gripe in an otherwise arresting and touching film. Gyllenhaal shines in her depiction of Sherry, embracing her vices, flaws and virtues with ease. The film hinges on the strength of her performance, but she is complemented by solid supporting performances, especially Danny Trejo's wise and kind love interest and Ryan Simpkins' youthful exuberance as her daughter.
The downbeat nature of the subject matter is matched by the bleak cinematography, the unhurried pace and the well-penned script. But Gyllenhaal is the element that elevates 'SherryBaby' above the ordinary, making it more than just a simple tale of hardship.