If nothing else, Maggie Gyllenhaal should land a few action-movie offers after her tough performance in the indie film "SherryBaby." It isn't long before Gyllenhaal, as Sherry Swanson, a former exotic dancer and heroin addict recently paroled from a stint in the slammer, has to stand down a mouthy roommate at the halfway house, tussle with some corrections officers and yank a woman by the hair for cussing in front of her young daughter.
These violent outbursts are momentary. Otherwise Gyllenhaal wisely underplays Sherry's feelings. Her single-minded goal is to win back her daughter, Alexis (Ryan Simpkins), but her brother (Brad William Henke) and his wife (Bridget Barkan) are not as ready to relinquish her. Sherry at first is determined to persevere, but their resistance eventually drives her to the corner drug dealer, and it isn't long before she's busted, out of a job and on her way to treatment for druggie jailbirds.
This brief comeback and downfall of a person honestly trying to overcome severe adversity are handled with a lot of restraint by writer and director Laurie Collyer. There are no momentous scenes in the film. The bad things that happen to Sherry are tossed away like well-delivered dialogue. Sherry has to give sexual favors to an anonymous administrator to get a job. She hooks up with a much older, economically depressed man for companionship. And we catch her father slyly molesting her, not likely for the first time, as she sobs in his arms about her daughter. Collyer presents such tragedies as just so many minutes passing on a clock major setbacks and humiliations for Sherry, but minor occurrences in the big, unfeeling world.
"SherryBaby" is reminiscent of director Patty Jenkins' "Monster." Sherry's just a better-looking version of Charlize Theron's Aileen Wuornos younger and with a little more help from her family. But is Sherry going back to prison, to repeat the endless cycle of victimization? "SherryBaby" doesn't tell us, but maybe it should. The difficult part of making a hard-nosed picture that's this good is to not flinch, especially at the end, when it's most tempting. (R) *** S