Bits of News recently has begun to specialise in films coming out of Hollywood, made about damaged young women, starring some of Hollywood's greatest actresses of the moment. First there was Black Snake Moan- about a southern nymphomaniac- starring Christina Ricci- and now following it swiftly there is SherryBaby starring another one of the bright talents of Hollywood, Maggie Gyllenhaal. And in many ways the stories are similar- in both a terribly damaged young woman, roaming through a wilderness of one night stands and in Sherrybaby heavy drug use, wants to escape but doesn't have the means within herself to escape. In both films disastrous lives have gone from the criminal to the pathological- but the films are subtly different.
Black Snake Moan sought to make a stark point about mental illness- that you have to overcome it by yourself- tie a mental chain to the wall and manacle your own desires to be the person that you don't want to be. In Black Snake Moan Rae acheives that- though only with the unorthodox assistance of Samuel Jackson's character who literally does tie her to a radiator with a chain. Sherrybaby is a less obvious film- there is less obvious redemption and the point made isn't really about the ways that you escape bad habits, but about how powerful those habits are.
Sherry, immaculately acted by Gyllenhaal one of the greatest actresses of the modern era, is a girl with obvious problems and obvious talents. She is pretty and charming. She is so pretty that she can sleep with any man she meets- and seduces both her counciller and her employment advisor. But Sherry returns always to the life she has left behind- drugs have cast a spell over her and draw her back into their murky world even as she seeks to leave. She is also incredibly self righteous and uses her sense of being insulted and wronged to justify running away from situations. She easily takes offence even at one point in a queue to the extent of having a fight in front of her young daughter who is shocked and upset by what happened, crying in a toilet afterwards.
Sherry is a woman seriously taken by the image of the outside- she wants her daughter back but can't quite look after her. She also wants to return to her family- her brother and sister in law in particular. But of course what she finds on the outside is more complicated- her relationship with her sister in law as the two women battle over the little girl- both I have to say with justice and the film implies that both the sister-in-law and Sherry have cause to be upset. Sherry goes around talking and chattering to all and sometimes she gets the wrong reaction- her father when appealed to hugs her and then slowly cups his hand inside her top around her breast. Others respond aggressively- Lynette the sister in law reacts with anger, some at the retreat she stays in think that she is up herself and needs beating up. Others respond to her seductions by sleeping with her and uselessly pontificating her- but not actually helping her.
Sherry wonders through the film as a little girl with a sexy body might behave- she showers her own daughter with gifts and with a rather smothering affection- but so much of her own attitude in the film is attention seeking- interrupting family dinners to offer to sing, attempting at every moment to keep the focus on herself and her troubles, seeing all the problems of other people through the lens of her own position. Consequently for example the issue with her growing daughter for Sherry is her daughter's relationship with her mother- a relationship that Sherry presumes must be exclusive- though in the last scene she does realise that she needs help.
She does have many sincere friends- her brother for instance sincerely wants to help her. She also has a native American friend- a tatooed man who has been through some of her experiences but responds to her with wisdom and treats her tantrums by sorting her out, tidying her up and trying to help. Her Probation Officer one senses also wants to help her, he bends the rules as far as they will go so that Sherry can get a job, so that she can sort herself out- ultimately he isn't able to stop her finally losing that job in order to go to hospital but you sense that he will continue trying. Her childishness often stops these other people helping- and definitely in the case of her brother makes her assume that help is aggression- his relationship with her is dominated by his tolerance and her childish refusal to accept help.
One last point needs to be reflected upon- Sherry's story unlike Rae's is unfinished- we don't know how it will end- but during the film you sense a soul in tension. She is pulled upwards by her brother, her native American friend, her love for her daughter, her parole officer, her own charm and wit and yet she is pulled backwards by her desire for drugs, her promiscuity, her unproductive rage and her self destructive persona. If Rae's story then is a parable of how one might escape- Sherry's similar story is more of a documentary- it has a heartwarming end but ultimately it is a film about the division in Sherry's soul- a division which hasn't been healed during the film. We ultimately don't know what will happen to Sherry after the end of the film- what we have seen though is the struggle for her soul.