If Sherry (Maggie Gyllenhaal), sitting across her parole officer’s desk, suddenly turned into a gorilla, his treatment of her would scarcely change. After all, this creature in her too-short skirt behaves just as civilized as a monkey in the zoo, thieving, rutting and demanding attention and handouts. (Strangers with Candy’s Jerri Blank would consider her a kindred spirit, a fellow boozer, user, and loser who started stripping off clothes and shooting up junk at 16.)
Now 22 and out of prison, Sherry’s ready to get her life back. Problem is, the life she wants—the house, the job, the custody of her daughter—is one she was never responsible enough to have in the first place. No one has faith in her, including herself. “I’m clean,” she repeatedly insists, but even she doesn’t seem to believe it. Sherry can parry smaller obstacles, like her substance abuse counselor and the bully in her women’s halfway home, who taunts her for being a snobby blanquita with wheedling, thuggery or sex (she gives out blowjobs like they’re flyers for car insurance). Her real antagonists are the people who love her but wouldn’t trust her to boil water—especially when it comes to her five-year-old daughter Lexi (Ryan Simpkins). Sherry’s brother Bobby and his wife Lynn (Brad William Henke and Bridget Barkan) are the only parents Lexi knows. Bobby is tentatively willing to disentangle the situation, if it will make family dinners less awkward. Lynn, however, thinks Sherry should count her blessings that she’s even allowed to play Cool Aunt to the kid, a relationship safely in the fun zone of toys and sofa-trampolining.
Writer-director Laurie Collyer has said that Sherry’s self-destructive story is based on the trajectories of the girl crew she ran with in junior high. They were early experimenters with drugs and alcohol, and many of them also went quickly to the cell block (and some to the grave). Her scruffy film is grounded in honesty, in the crimped way Sherry walks in her one pair of heels, her shredded late-night haircuts, and the watery look in her eyes when she thinks she’s scheming someone, only to get played herself. It’s the kind of honesty that makes people cringe, just as Lynn does when she hears Sherry defile Lexi’s innocence by telling her exactly where her mother’s been and why.
Collyer’s dogged commitment to the truth precludes happy endings. She sees how women like Sherry unconsciously define themselves as victims and refuse to take responsibility for their own actions, leaving them forever spinning their wheels in the mud. And watching that happen—watching Sherry move with that black trash bag she uses for a suitcase from boarding house to couch to hotel like a tornado seeking a low pressure zone—is to be hammered down by hopelessness.
Gyllenhaal seems to consider this her unglammed, serious performance, and she’s up to the challenge of what’s ultimately a very nuanced depiction of a stereotype: Sherry is fully alive, but wholly and maddeningly predictable. In resurrecting her burned-out friends, Collyer shows talent at capturing the grandiose, half-hearted gestures of the immature and desperate, yet she offers no suggestions, and her only cause (daddy issues) rings hollow. Seen as a case story of a woman born into disrepute, this faithful film is limited—what lingers isn’t awareness or tragedy, but the unpleasant truth that sometimes when your back’s against the wall, you just need to accept that you’re a failure.