Maggie Gyllenhaal as Sherry Swanson in Sherrybaby

Sherrybaby is just one of three films made by women being shown at the National Media Museum this week (the other two are both costume films/romances, Lady Chatterley and Copying Beethoven). The obvious question to ask of any film written and directed by a woman is whether the story, characterisation or treatment is in some way distinctive because of the gender of its principal creator. In the case of Laurie Collyer’s film, the aesthetics are fairly conventional, but a case could be made for a story which focuses on a mother-daughter relationship and has at its centre a woman whose relationships with men have so far generally been either abusive or based upon some form of exchange value rather than genuine feeling.

My own view is that it is usually more interesting to look at the relationship between the writer/director and her lead actors. In this case, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that Maggie Gyllenhaal must have had great faith in the script and felt comfortable working with Laurie Collyer. At the beginning of the film, Sherry Swanson has just been released from prison after serving time for thefts undertaken to feed a drug habit. The film resembles more familiar European social realist narratives in its detailed depiction of probation and hostel life. In the first half of the film, Sherry has a series of encounters in which she has sex with three different men, partly to get something from them and partly to feed her own desire. The scenes need to be graphic and they are. Just as with Jane Campion and Meg Ryan in In the Cut, Collyer and Gyllenhaal serve up sex that is both more ‘real’ and matter of fact and in a sense more ‘adult’ than in most conventional Hollywood treatments.

My only ‘problem’ with this film, which may be my own problem, is that Maggie Gyllenhaal is just too good an actor and too big a star for the film overall. This is not a criticism of her acting. Rather, for this male viewer, she is just too alive, too ‘magnetic’ as well as too beautiful and always dominates the frame in what is otherwise a small-scale and restrained film.

The film clearly got a great deal of publicity in the US, even if it didn’t play everywhere. The IMDB bulletin boards are crammed with comments, mainly on the sex scenes or on the aspects of dysfunctional family life on display. It is noticeable that few if any comments make any reference to the director. But quite a few do comment on Gyllenhaal – many in a way which makes me despair about audiences (though, of course, they are in turn criticised by others). Some comments also complain about a lack of ‘closure’ for the story. I think this does reveal that the narrative drive (a woman who seeks to win back her daughter’s affection and to escape from her past) in the film is not something that a mass US audience recognises. Yet I would say that there is a rather conventional ending to the film (which might, as some commentators suggest, be rather abrupt in depicting a change in behaviour).

Interviews with Laurie Collyer on indieWire reveal that she went to film school only after spending several years working in various welfare/care services. This experience is the basis for the story and it’s good to see an American film dealing with such issues. However, it says something about film distribution perhaps in that the film may not have achieved the limited profile it has managed without Maggie Gyllenhaal’s presence. In the UK, Ken Loach is able to make a film with similar characters, but using less well-known names.