Review date: 6-7-09
Release Date: 9-8-06
Runtime: 96 min.
Costume Designer: Jill Newell
Wow, this movie kind of makes you thankful for your life, shortcomings and all, because Sherry Swanson’s story proves that things could be so much worse. This is a movie about slaying your personal demons, parenthood, drug abuse, the “system”, brotherly/sisterly love, and doing the right thing. Maggie Gyllenhaal turns in a stellar performance as Sherry, and the costumes, while simple, tell us so much about her journey and her situation, and her state of mind.
The movie begins with Sherry riding a bus bound for Newark, New Jersey. She has just been released from prison, having served three years for theft related to her drug addiction, heroin. Sherry enters a halfway house, and meets with her parole officer (Giancarlo Esposito). He explains the rules: no crossing state lines, no encounters with the police, no messing up. Otherwise, he writes her up as a parole violator, and she goes back to prison for two more years.
Sherry has a four-year-old daughter Alexis (Ryan Simpkins) with whom she would like to be reunited. It’s the goal that drives all of her decisions in this film, or so it seems. But Sherry is a complex person, a user and a liar, a heartbreakingly sweet woman whom you’d never want to cross. As much as she’d like to make her daughter her one and only priority, she finds certain distractions to be overwhelming.
Once moved into the halfway house, she meets Andy Kelly (Rio Hackford), the director of the Genesis Recovery Center. They talk about the bible, and the twelve-step program, but their body language belies their true intentions. Cut to: Sherry and Andy going at it in the basement of the halfway house. It’s graphic and feels pretty sleazy. We have a window into Sherry’s compulsions and her confusion in this moment. Staying on the straight and narrow has less of a definition for Sherry than for others, perhaps, and we begin to understand her plight.
Her brother Bobby (Brad William Henke) arrives at the halfway house to take Sherry to visit Alexis, who has been living with him and his wife since Sherry’s incarceration. Initially, the girl does not recognize Sherry, and then, when she does, she melts into a chorus of “Mommy-Mommy-Mommy” that is music to Sherry’s ears, and cacophony to Bobby’s wife, Lynette (Bridget Barkan).
She goes to the employment office where, based on her training in jail, Sherry feels she is a perfect fit to work with children. The employment officer, however, wants to put her to work in a factory. Feeling bereft of options, Sherry propositions the man, who all-too-willingly takes her up on her offer. When push comes to shove, Sherry uses her trump card: sex.
After the job interview, Sherry attends a twelve-step meeting at the Genesis Recovery Center, led by Andy. His co-leader is Dean (Danny Trejo), a long-haired Native American tough. Sherry gets up to share at this meeting, and blurts out that she feels like using. That heroin was the love of her life from age sixteen to twenty-two, that she got sober in jail, that she wants her daughter back. Her testimony seems to trail off, and, lost in her own thoughts, she sits down.
After the meeting, she gently rebuffs Andy, and gets a ride home from Dean. Dean remembers her from the days when she was an underage stripper in a greasy nude bar he often frequented. Dean and Sherry have a bond – they know the same people – and for the first time, it feels like Sherry might have a friend or an ally in this dim, dank world.
Using the phone later that night to call her brother, another resident of the halfway house gets in Sherry’s face. Sherry does not back down, and a fight begins. Mothers and fathers of the two women involved are insulted, and it ends with Sherry screaming, “Don’t f*ck with me, because I will HURT you!!” She wakes up later that night, disturbed, packs her belongings into a trash bag, and hitchhikes to her brother’s house. It’s cringe-worthy. Sherry is quickly burning through her options.
She wakes up on the cement steps, to the sound of the door slamming as Lynette reaches for the morning paper on the porch. Lynette is pissed, but not surprised, by Sherry’s appearance. Sherry explains to her brother that the living situation at the halfway house is making her want to use again, and she needs to stay with him for two weeks. Alexis, meanwhile, is packing off to summer camp. She greets her mother by calling her Sherry, a slap in the face to a woman who sorely yearns to reclaim her motherhood. As the girl leaves, Sherry bashes the cabinets in the kitchen in frustration.
Sherry showers and gets dressed, putting on a pair of purple pants. She goes into the living room where Lynette puts makeup products in gift-bags. Sherry asks Lynette if she thinks her pants are too tight. Lynette says that no, they fit well and Sherry has a good figure; they look good. The tension between the two women softens. Lynette offers to do Sherry’s makeup – she’d do her eyes purple, to match her pants. It’s touching; for the first time we see Lynette’s compassion toward Sherry. Lynette asks if Sherry had any relations with women while she was in prison. Again, the words that come out of Sherry’s mouth say NO, but her body language reads otherwise. The truth isn’t always the truth with Sherry.
Later that evening, Sherry’s father Bob (Sam Bottoms) and his new wife Marsha (Kate Burton) come over for dinner, followed by Alexis. Sherry is enamored of her father, it seems, and wants his attention with childlike intensity. She interrupts and kind of makes an annoyance of herself, until he listens to her and does what she wants.
The family sits down for dinner. Curiously, beer is served all around, and even Sherry has a glass, technically breaking her sobriety. During dinner, Sherry tries to ingratiate herself with Alexis, at one point suggesting that she (Sherry) sing a song at Alexis’ behest. Sherry stands and sings an a capella version of the Bangles’ Eternal Flame, that, on closer examination of the lyrics, proves to be pretty heart-rending.
Close your eyes, give me your hand, darling
Do you feel my heart beating, do you understand?
Do you feel the same? Am I only dreaming?
Is this burning an eternal flame?
I believe it’s meant to be, darling
I watch when you are sleeping; you belong to me
Do you feel the same, am I only dreaming
Or is this burning an eternal flame?
She sings these words to her daughter, on whom the message is lost. Lynette, however, gets it, and her response is to get more wine.
Later, Sherry and Alexis play with dolls. Alexis tells Sherry that Lynette has asked her not to call Sherry “mommy”. Sherry calls Lynette out on this, and they have a heated argument. Cut to: Bobby driving Sherry to the train station. The family has kicked her out, and she is once again on her own. Sherry is unable to reconcile the fact that her brother is not on her side.
Sherry has rented a hotel room, and she is coloring her hair – from a pale bleached blonde to a dark brown. She cuts her hair into the sink. She has turned a corner, made a transition. She calls Dean up, and when he arrives, all she is wearing is a grey muscle shirt and a pair of underwear. Sherry drinks beer through their conversation. One thing leads to another, and they go at it.
The next day, Sherry shows up for a meeting with her parole officer, where she is frisked and manhandled. He’s not happy about how she’s been handling things, leaving the halfway house, and threatens her with a violation write-up. However, a job for her has come through, working with kids at a Catholic youth facility.
She goes to work with a spring in her step, at first teaching the children games that are slightly inappropriate (hit my hands as hard as you can). On her way home, she stops at Dean’s house. She can’t come in because he has a lady-friend inside. She thought that maybe she was special to him, and voices her disappointment. He tells her to come back in twenty minutes. Sherry goes to the liquor store and sips beer through a straw from a brown-paper-bag-wrapped can on her way out.
She returns to Dean’s house, where he cooks venison stew and talks briefly about his five children. She lets on that she’s had sex with his friend Andy. She returns to her hotel, where she calls Bobby. She wants to speak with Alexis, but Bobby makes up a lie that she’s in bed already and she can’t talk. That Alexis’ birthday is coming up, and that there will be a party. Frustrated, and seeing through his lies, Sherry drowns her sorrow in a flask of hard liquor she bought at the store. Sherry goes to the toy store, shopping. She sets off every noise-making toy in the store, it seems. She buys a big stuffed bear for her daughter’s birthday.
The next day, Dean drops her off at Bobby’s house for the birthday party. She rings the bell, but no one answers. She catches Dean before he drives away and together they go to her father’s house. There are balloons in the driveway, and it is clear that this is where the party is. Alexis greets her tentatively, and Lynette is downright dour. When another boy at the party takes one of Sherry’s presents for Alexis, she (Alexis) knocks him over, and begins to cry.
The kids and most of the adults go outside. Sherry sits down with her father, and breaks down, explaining that Bobby and his wife are coaching Alexis not to call her “mommy”, and she feels like a stranger in her daughter’s life. Unbeknownst to Sherry, her brother is observing all of this from another room. Sherry puts her head on her father’s lap, crying, and (brace yourself), her father starts to feel her breasts. It is horrifying. And her brother has seen it.
In this moment, we understand that this incest/abuse has been an ongoing situation in Sherry’s life. We understand that her young daughter is in peril (in that she could face a similar fate), and we also understand a bit of why Sherry might be so confused and messed up. It seems too simple an explanation for all of her deficiencies, but a significant contributing factor, indeed.
Sherry gets up and runs from the house. She runs barefoot for what seems like miles, away from the party, away from the family, away from the things that torture her. Night falls. Sherry is in a bad neighborhood. She buys drugs from some hoods on the street. She snorts, vomits, drinks mouthwash, and then injects heroin. She passes out on the bed.
Still high the next morning, she attends a meeting at the rehab center. Sensing that she’s high, Dean takes her to his home, where he tenderly performs a Native American purification ritual on her – smudging her with sage and bathing her in his tub. She falls asleep at his house, and wakes up the next morning in time to go to her job at the school.
She teaches the kids a song about a mama bird and a baby bird. She is clearly enjoying her work, and the kids respond to her enthusiastically. She goes back to her hotel room, where her parole officer is waiting for her. He has seen the drug paraphernalia, and he knows what is going on. He gives her two options: 1) in-patient drug rehab, or 2) going back to prison. After a big argument, she chooses the in-patient treatment, and her parole officer sets a time for her to report: Monday morning, 8AM. She has the rest of the weekend to say goodbye before she goes for treatment.
She meets her brother for breakfast at a diner. She lets her brother know that because she feels he doesn’t have her back, she can’t trust him. She asks his permission to take Alexis out alone, on a one-on-one playdate so that Alexis can get to know her, not be scared of her. Bobby agrees.
Sherry packs her suitcase in to the trunk of Dean’s car, and heads for her brother’s house. She is greeted by her brother and a very perturbed Lynette, who snaps, “I hope you’re happy, cuz no one else is!” As Bobby straps Alexis into the car seat, she starts crying. Sherry drives the car away from Bobby’s home, and we soon see she’s getting on the Turnpike.
As the car approaches the tollbooth, we see a state trooper’s car lurking across lanes. Sherry is nervous, recognizing her violation of parole. It appears clear at this point that Sherry is making a break for it, and taking her daughter with her. The two stop for lunch at a lowbrow cafeteria. Over French fries, Sherry asks Alexis if she’d like to go to Florida. Alexis is too young to know what that means, but we audience members start to feel a little sick.
While waiting in (a very long) line for the bathroom, Sherry observes a mother admonishing her small child in a harsh manner. She gives the woman what-for, and in the melee, Alexis runs to the bathroom and hides in a stall. When she emerges, we see that she has peed her pants, and is very embarrassed.
Changing Alexis’ pants in the parking lot, Sherry gets a true taste of the trials of parenthood. Nothing is easy, especially getting a child’s pants off over her sandals, nothing. Stymied, Sherry looks into Alexis’ eyes and demands, “Tell me “I love you, Mommy’” Sherry makes Alexis say it a few times, and it sinks in that this is all she truly needed to hear. Sherry puts new shorts on her daughter. They get back in the car and drive away.
Nighttime. The car pulls up to Bobby’s house and Alexis and Sherry get out. Sherry has a heartfelt moment with Bobby, saying, “I never asked you – could you help me take care of my daughter? I can’t do it by myself” They embrace. Sherry was prepared to escape (rehab, life, her family) with Alexis, but instead she chose to do the right thing. The end.
Sherry’s costumage consists of about ten or eleven items: a thin crocheted yellow halter-top, a yellow, blue and green floral miniskirt, an olive-green hooded sweatshirt, a pair of jeans, a shabby purple halter-top, a thrift-store-looking lipstick pink skirt suit, a hand-me-down-looking beige floral long-sleeved blouse, denim short shorts, a blue sleeveless cropped top, a grey muscle shirt, and a blue sundress. For shoes, she has some black sandal-mules, running shoes, black low-heeled pumps, and pink flip-flops. Jewelry: a gold heart necklace, a gold cross necklace, big gold hoop earrings, a ring worn on the left index finger, a gold bracelet (worn on the right) and a watch (worn on the left). Oh yes, and a purple bra. And a pair of maroon nylon underpants. That’s it, folks.
This simplicity helps us to understand her situation. Sherry does not have money for clothes. She does not have the “magic suitcase” that you see in many films, where characters wear fabulous new clothes, change after change on their “road-trip-with-a-single-backpack”. In this film, Sherry wears the scraps and remnants of her life, and we see these garments, worn in different combinations throughout the film, much as she would have to wear them in real life, as these garments are the only clothing she has.
The type of clothing she possesses speaks to her self-perception. The flimsy, sleazy halter-tops, worn consistently (in your face) with no bra, tell us that she is a person who trades on her sexuality. This is a person who uses her body to get what she wants. We are therefore not so surprised when she offers her body up for favors. The jewelry she wears – possibly fake yellow gold, unsophisticated, big hoop earrings – tell us where she’s from and to what social class she belongs. These details speak to the aesthetic in which she was raised. An astute observer recognizes these choices (trashy, low-rent, tacky) and forms an opinion instantly as to who she is, this character. The costume design in SherryBaby is spare, but directly to the point. We know a million things about her instantly, just from looking at her costume.
When Sherry goes for her job interview, she wears a bright pink skirt suit. It brought to mind the charity organization Dress For Success http://www.dressforsuccess.org/, a great group that provides business/interview clothing to women in need, particularly at shelters and halfway houses. I imagined Sherry looking through the Dress for Success racks, and pulling out the most attractive thing to her – hot pink, tight skirt – and taking it home. When she shows up for the interview, her skirt is tight, but her chest seems to swim in this large jacket, this jacket that is clearly not hers. She removes her 1970s-looking floral blouse to reveal a purple lace bra – it’s really perfect. In no way, shape or form could Sherry ever look actually professional. The purple bra says it all. Even before we see the purple bra, she still looks like a porn/stripper version of “business woman”, due to the choice of color and the accessories. It’s really nicely done.
In the scene where it is revealed that Sherry has suffered the indignity and horror of incest, she wears a blue sundress (again with no bra). This is the scene at her daughter’s birthday party. She wears a simple dress; it’s respectable looking, and humble. For her to be molested, literally, when she looks this innocuous, is jarring. It sounds awful, but we expect her behavior to be more sexually overt when she is dressed in an overtly sexualized manner. We do not expect her behavior to be sexualized when she is dressed innocently. And to be clear – it’s not her behavior that is sexualized – she is taken advantage of in her grief, in a sexual manner. For this reason (she finally looks put-together and innocent, and is egregiously molested) the fondling scene with her father is just disgusting and so disturbing. Your heart breaks for her, right then and there. It’s her turning point, the fulcrum upon which her despair and pain turn into action. And she chooses poorly, knowing few other options.
All of Sherry’s costume changes speak to how she would like to be perceived. She doesn’t have a major costume arc in this film, as it would be difficult to do that without introducing new costumes to indicate the change. Rather, her costumes figure to fully illustrate the way she sees herself and the way she would like others to see her. She has no shame in her sexuality. It is part of who she is.
The rest of the cast is costumed in a manner that is pretty straightforward without being cliché. No one has any money in this film, so everyone looks pretty aged and worn. Nothing is new. Sherry’s father Bob and his wife Marsha wear neutral earth tones, as does her brother Bobby (for the most part). When Sherry’s father molests her, he wears a dark navy/black polo shirt. Nice nod toward the dark side, the evil, of his intent.
The interesting costume link for me, though, was between Lynette and Alexis. There are many scenes in the film where Lynette and Alexis are wearing complementary color schemes (example, Alexis wears pink floral while Lynette wears pink solid; Alexis wears blue floral while Lynette wears plaid with a blue pickup). This linkage of their characters via use of color is important, because it subtly tells the audience that these two are a pair. Interestingly, Sherry and Alexis really didn’t have this color linkage in their costumes. A clue, perhaps, that things were not going to be as easy for Sherry as she’d have liked.
There was one thing I noticed, but would need to see again or to ask Jill Newell about – I thought I saw that Sherry’s cross necklace was missing during the time she took drugs, after the molestation scene. The cross then comes back when she goes to the diner with her brother. I chalked that up to a “losing my religion” vibe, but maybe I just wasn’t able to see the cross necklace during that sequence? Not sure about that, but judge for yourself. Let me know if you see anything different.
This film deals with a segment of society that doesn’t get a lot of “face-time” with the public. Women who come out of prison are often ill equipped to deal with the world, and SherryBaby (which I understand is based on a true story) sheds some light on their plight. It is easy to judge people for their perceived weaknesses and failures, but SherryBaby encourages us to look with compassion and understanding into the lives and hearts of women like Sherry. I am glad this film was made, and I hope that it touches people and moves them to be more understanding.
So, I highly recommend this film. It’s kind of a downer, but definitely worth seeing. Costume-wise, it’s quite spare, but it hits its mark squarely. It’s nice to see the costumes functioning so eloquently to describe a character so succinctly. Great job, and thumbs up to Jill Newell and her crew!