Watching this made me ponder how much filmmakers assume that we will already know by the time we watch a film. The synopsis tells us:
“Sherry Swanson returns home to New Jersey after serving a three year prison sentence. Eager to re-establish a relationship with her young daughter, Sherry soon discovers that coming back to the world she left behind is far more difficult than she had planned.”
I would have liked to watch the opening sequence without knowing this to see how much I could have surmised. This was front of mind because I was not convinced initially that Maggie Gyllenhaal could pull this role off. She didn’t seem quite angry enough for someone who had just left prison after three and a half years. We get a glimpse of her attitude when a passer-by bumps her arm and does not apologise but it didn’t quite ring true for me.
Sherry Swanson’s daughter has been cared-for by her brother Bobby and his wife Lynette, played Bridget Barkan who does a superb job of being a passive-aggressive surrogate mother who is clearly conflicted in her feelings towards the situation. On parole and staying at a half-way house, Sherry must stay out of trouble or risk going back to prison. This battle becomes increasingly difficult for her and she behaves more and more brattishly, as if she is in a teenage drama. The film explores parenthood (and perhaps the theory of transactional analysis – the parent, adult, child alter ego states?) as well as rehabilitation.
I must confess I was shocked by the suddenness and context of some of the sex scenes. Not least that the manager of the outreach programme is unprofessional enough to shag Sherry in the garage a few days after her arrival. As the film progresses it becomes clear that most men Sherry encounters are more than willing to take advantage of her. She is not a victim (in all but one of the cases) but she is vulnerable and the men, in my opinion, are behaving inappropriately. I have it on good authority that there is a well-known “13th step” in AA lingo which involves sexually predatory behaviour towards emotionally vulnerable newcomer to the programme. This is very clear in the scene where Dean comes to Sherry’s motel room.
Sherry becomes increasingly out of control and unlikeable and this reaches a climax when the character of her father, Bob Swanson Sr (Sam Bottoms) is introduced. Our natural response to this is that he will represent stability and support for her. We immediately see Sherry regressing even further into childish behavior, jumping on the sofa and clamouring for the attention of her dad. The family get-together quickly lapses into drama and Sherry appeals for help from her father. Just at the point when we can hardly stand her anymore, there is the stomach punch of seeing Bob Swanson Sr fondling his daughter’s breasts. This brilliantly played but nauseating scene was perfectly placed as it creates a convincing context for much of what is happening in Sherry’s life. She never mentions the abuse or uses it as an excuse but it has clearly taken its toll on her self-esteem and her interactions with men. She takes heroin in the next scene so we know the link is direct.
Her brother Bobby also witnesses the moment but is unseen. I am not sure if this was a device to add drama (Bobby is hovering behind the door so we know something important will be revealed) or if it was supposed to add to the narrative. I didn’t notice his behaviour particularly change towards his sister afterwards, which perhaps suggests he already knew that abuse had occurred? Maybe some of this plot development was edited out at a later stage.
I enjoyed the film and was quite moved by it but there felt to be something lacking in terms of the direction of the narrative – it was a little scrappy. It may have worked better with a less well-known actress or with a stronger ending. The resolution is that we see a strong bond between her and her brother (who is the only really good person in the film) so we feel that Sherry has a chance. She is back from the brink of ruining her life. The overall feeling I was left with by this film was that everyone in it is just muddling through life, trying to cope, trying to keep going.
There are several scenes set inside cars and I was interested by the different camera angles.
- In the first Sherry is being driven by her
brother. The camera view is from outside
the car on the passenger side looking across at both characters. I think this
aims to enhance the idea that this is a normal, respectable neighbourhood.
Sherry is going straight and engaging in a family activity with her
brother. He even mentions that he has
quit smoking so we feel safe and hopeful for Sherry’s rehabilitation. She looks out at the world and we see kids
playing in the park and hear their happy noises.
- The second scene is shot from the back seat in between Sherry and Dean (Danny Trejo). It is dark and they are leaving their NA meeting - probably in a bad neighbourhood. The light is coming from the front and lights up under their faces – the camera switches back and forth as they speak to each other. It feels much more claustrophobic and awkward. The viewer is being put right inside this relationship with no escape.
- Later on when Sherry is planning to run away with her daughter, the view is from in front and to the side of Gyllenhaal looking into the back seat where the child is. This enhances the idea that there is a link between them but also shows that the disconnect is very significant.
- Unsubtle opening soundtrack – too much editorialising
- The film is quite pale, de-saturated and seems a bit insubstantial. This works well when Sherry is washed out and sick looking when strung out on drugs or booze and adds something to the white trash feel
- Heartbreaking scene when she first encounters her daughter again after three years inside – she hugs her tightly and cries saying “I am sorry” repeatedly and eventually the kid says, in a tiny voice, “Where were you?” (very minimalist)
- Much of the film is in documentary style, hand-held camera, very natural acting – especially the scenes with Sherry and her kid
- Good line from the parole officer “You don’t want to do the work” – sounded authentic - we almost like him in this scene which adds to the sense that all the characters in the film have good and bad aspects - they are very human
- The scene in diner when the brother says “I’m on your fucking side!” is given an extra edge by the speed of the traffic going past outside – it adds to the tension in the scene and the feeling that everything is running out of control
- Sherry wears headphones frequently to show her unwillingness (fear?) of fully engaging with the outside world – she is always on the outside looking in