Few films leave movie lovers thinking, “There is nothing I would change to make this a better film.” It is also rare to see mental illness portrayed accurately and respectfully on the big screen. Filmmaker Laurie Collyer, in her debut film Sherrybaby (2006), manages to achieve both.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is Sherry Swanson, a young mother with a history of trauma and, although it is never directly stated, borderline personality disorder, who is paroled from prison in New Jersey with two major goals in mind: to stay clean from heroin and to reconnect with her daughter, Alexis, who is being cared for by her brother and sister-in-law. From the first time Sherry is reunited with Alexis after incarceration to the film’s finale, we watch with a mixture of heartbreak, anger, and empathy, as she attempts to reclaim her life in a family and a society that does little to understand or even acknowledge her suffering.
While the film’s cinematography lends Sherrybaby a beautifully raw and life-like quality, it’s the character of Sherry Swanson that makes Collyer’s film a masterpiece. Sherry is neither likable nor unlikable because, in the world of this film, life is complicated. Sherry loves Alexis, yet she is unable to mother her because she herself has never been properly mothered. Sherry wants to stay clean, but the energy it takes to fight her addiction overwhelms her. Sherrybaby is so psychologically astute, its protagonist so viscerally human, there are moments when the film feels more like a documentary than a work of fiction.
In a profoundly subtle scene that captures Sherry’s inability to take on the adult role in her relationship with her daughter (and deepens the significance of the title), mother and daughter are playing in the bedroom. Handing her mother a doll, Alexis asks, “What’s your baby’s name?” When Sherry replies, “My baby’s name is Alexis,” her daughter protests, “This is pretend, and you have to find a new name.” Realizing her mother is unprepared to change, Alexis compromises: “Then my baby’s name can be Sherry.”