Watching Maggie Gyllenhaal's bare body and battered soul in Laurie Collyer's quietly extraordinary Sherrybaby, you almost get a sense that the actress knows the load that was her star-making turn in Secretary, and that this was her chance to set things right. Whereas Secretary's self-mutilating, neurotic, child-abuse survivor found dubious salvation in having the crap beat out of her by James Spader, Sherrybaby's similarly wrecked Jersey girl only finds a heroin habit, a prison sentence, an estranged daughter and, as the film opens, a world to try and tolerate sober after being released from the slammer.
Even with a well-meaning brother (Brad William Henke) and a seemingly decent dad (Sam Bottoms), Sherry post-prison is trapped alone in layers of pathology, externally visualized by Newark, N.J., wasteland locations that look like a nuke strike could only help. Reduced by circumstance to a near-feral state, her only hope is to regain her daughter, Alexis (Ryan Simpkins). She screws anything that moves, or looks like it might ward off self-awareness and dope-hunger, or might get her the job she needs to reclaim Alexis. (The insult informing her hypersexuality is later clarified in one quick, awful image.) She finally earns custody of Alexis, but despite the help of her NA sponsor/lover Dean (Danny Trejo), now she has to deal with her worst enemy: herself.
Prior to Sherrybaby, Collyer made a documentary, Nuyorican Dream, about a New York Puerto Rican family wracked by poverty, crack and incarceration. Sherrybaby has a similar, artfully uninflected feel. Which is no small thing, this warding off of melodrama, hysteria and cheap, manipulative impulses for 96 minutes. Gyllenhaal matches her director in affect-free vérité. Walking with a permanent slouch like she's bending under the weight of personal gravity, her hair bleached straw-blond and her eyes like dull nickels, her performance is a brave, no-vanity turn. Sherry's many nude sex scenes are either disturbing (enjoying oral sex as a cheap & creepy endorphin rush) ' or outright horrifying (realizing a social worker won't get her a job, she seduces him with all the passion of a Romero zombie). Collyer and Gyllenhaal gamble big on crafting a heroine who's alternately manipulative or a complete bitch, but whose humanity, and numbed decency, finally trumps her failings. The film ends with a certain hope, but one appropriate to the reality lensed here ' tenuous, flitting and fragile.