Beyond the Multiplex

Maggie Gyllenhaal's sexy, riveting turn in "Sherrybaby" is building big Oscar buzz. Plus: A look at Filipino tranny nannies in Tel Aviv.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 7, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

There's already Oscar buzz surrounding Maggie Gyllenhaal's performance as a recovering drug addict trying to reconnect with her daughter in "Sherrybaby." But don't let that stop you from seeing the movie. I know exactly how that sounds: Tear-jerking movie-of-the-week, replete with 12-step maxims, Dr. Phil-style tough love, family huggathons and healing.

Thankfully, "Sherrybaby" is a much spinier beast than that. All those things are found in the film, in fact, but writer-director Laurie Collyer -- who emerges here as a major talent in her own right -- is more interested in what people actually do than in what they think or what they say. When Sherry Swanson (Gyllenhaal) gets paroled from prison and meets Andy (Rio Hackford), the director of her halfway house, their first conversation follows the rules. Andy encourages her to join his 12-step group; Sherry's carrying the Bible and says she's sticking with Jesus. But their eyes and their body language are saying something else entirely, and a few minutes later Andy and Sherry are going at it butt-naked in the basement.

Gyllenhaal has had some fine roles since her emergence in 2002 with "Secretary" (where I thought she was much better than the lukewarm material), but she's not the sort of actress who dominates a film, from a supporting role, with the force of her charisma. She transubstantiates from character to character in almost miraculous fashion, and it takes a big, messed-up and fascinating role like Sherry for her to show what she can do.

To my sensibility, there's not a hint of overacting or condescension here; from her dead-on Jersey-girl accent and slouchy posture to her half-baked New Age philosophy to her odd blend of sexual cynicism and romanticism, Sherry feels uncannily real. She might remind you of one of those gum-chewing, short-shorts-wearing working-class "bad girls" from high school, one who took two or three more wrong turns than the others did. You could say that Sherry gets out of the joint with good intentions, but those take you only so far. She's clean and sober, for the moment. She's also a hothead, who continually thinks she's being wronged. She's compulsively promiscuous and an inveterate liar. She accepts, as a matter of course, that she's got to blow the employment counselor to get the job she wants.

Alongside Ryan Gosling's equally strong performance as a coked-out junior-high teacher in "Half Nelson" (another Oscar possible), Gyllenhaal's turn in "Sherrybaby" makes this look like the season of the Downwardly Mobile White Folks. These are very different films, with different strengths. Don't miss either one. "Half Nelson" is arguably the more ambitious and adventurous, but with its neo-Marxist dialectic bubbling under the surface it's also more self-consciously didactic. Collyer paints a meticulous, nonjudgmental portrait of Sherry's post-prison world, including the hypocritical bureaucracy around her and her screwed-up New Jersey family, but never tries to shift the focus (or the blame) from her central character.

Of course Sherry engages our sympathy, because she's quick, funny and attractive and because she's motivated by a powerful desire to reconnect with her 4-year-old daughter, Alexis (nicely played by the child actress Ryan Simpkins). But Sherry's been away for two years. Alexis can barely remember her, and Sherry's brother, Bobby (Brad William Henke), and sister-in-law, Lynnette (Bridget Barkan), have been raising her as their own.

Barkan's delicate performance in what could have been a cardboard gargoyle role is one marker of the depth and craft in "Sherrybaby." Lynnette is capable of reaching out to Sherry in a spirit of compassion and female solidarity, offering to cut her hair and do her makeup. She's also just flat-out curious. When Lynnette gets up the courage to ask whether Sherry experimented with lesbian sex in prison, we get the distinct feeling the answer is not truthful. But more than anything, Lynnette sees Sherry as a threat. A threat to Alexis, of course, and also a threat to family stability; a force of disorder who's likely to bring drugs, random guys and the cops into a household with a wobbly past.

Hollywood films are constitutionally incapable, I think, of dealing with working-class American life honestly. Movieland portraits of the so-called real people "out there" -- even when, as in this case, they live just across the river from Manhattan -- tend to be simultaneously contemptuous and sanctimonious, depicting virtues and traumas drawn from mythology rather than reality. Collyer, on the other hand, can manage even a disturbing revelation about Sherry and her affectionate father (Sam Bottoms) with delicacy. An event that might serve to explain everything, in a Hollywood movie, is just another thunderstorm on Sherry's troubled horizon.

As Sherry navigates her relationships with Bobby, Alexis, Lynnette, her straight-shooting parole officer (Giancarlo Esposito) and Dean (Danny Trejo), the Native American A.A. counselor who becomes her lover, Collyer's plot follows a familiar trajectory. But this is a story without easy miracles or jailhouse transformations. The wonder of "Sherrybaby" is that we can admire Sherry's exuberance and evident love of life -- and the extraordinary actress who portrays her -- without really being sure where she's going. Is she learning that bad decisions have consequences, for her and the people she loves? Will she ever be capable of being a real mother to Alexis? Frankly, we don't know, and there's a dignity and honesty in that uncertainty that movies can rarely reach.

"Sherrybaby" opens Sept. 8 in New York and Los Angeles, and Sept. 15 in Chicago and San Francisco, with wider national release to follow.

"Rolling Family": Life, death and the erratic road movie that lies between them
OK, so the barrage of fall-season films is upon us, and there are countless things more newsworthy than an oddball Argentine road comedy that's going to make a brief stop in theaters before DVD release. Right? No, wrong. Not when the film in question is as thoroughly wonderful as Pablo Trapero's "Rolling Family," there aren't.

Trapero is that rarest kind of filmmaker, a minimalist with a huge heart. As this film's extended family travels clear across Argentina, from Buenos Aires to a remote town on the Brazilian border, in a motor home built atop a 1956 Chevy Viking pickup, conversation is sparse and images predominate. What you'll take away from "Rolling Family" are wordless scenes: a teen couple snogging in the cramped camper bathroom; a younger kid daydreaming with his head out the window as overhead wires twist past, a disgraced wife crying, an old woman sitting in silence, looking, literally and figuratively, toward the end of the road.

When there is talking, most of it is ordinary stuff. Arguments, complaints, flirtation, negotiation. Yet along this hot, slow journey, as one passenger leaves and two others (one a stray dog) get on board, this entire family is revealed to us, with all its love and pain, its unhealed wounds and ridiculous behavior. A new cylinder head for the Chevy's engine is acquired from a distant village (where someone had been using it as a planter). An emergency dental extraction is performed. A separated couple reunites and a married couple splits up. It's a profoundly rich and beautiful picture, in its unassuming way close to a masterpiece.

Trapero has cast his own grandmother, Graciana Chironi (who isn't a professional actress), as Emilia, the family matriarch who decides they're all going on this improbable odyssey. While the rest of the cast are actors -- the stars are Bernardo Forteza as the harried camper-driving dad, and Ruth Dobel and Liliana Capurro as his feuding wife and sister-in-law -- the '56 Viking is the actual vehicle assembled 30 years ago by Trapero's father for family vacations. Not every artist could turn that intimacy into convincing drama, but this director isn't just any artist.

"Rolling Family" has been a favorite around the world at film festivals, but it's just too eccentric and hard to classify, I guess, for anyone to gamble on theatrical distribution. It'll be on DVD shortly; invite your mom, your best friends and the neighbors you want to impress. This family's secrets deserve to become yours.

"Rolling Family" opens Sept. 8 at Cinema Village in New York, and will be available on DVD Oct. 25.

"Le Petit Lieutenant": Loss and heartbreak, dressed up in noir
French director Xavier Beauvois' new film "Le Petit Lieutenant" bears a strong family resemblance to the "Prime Suspect" TV serials that made Helen Mirren a hard-boiled sex symbol. Nathalie Baye, one of the dominant actresses of the French screen, plays Commandant Caroline Vaudieu, the daughter of a Paris "supercop" who's at home amid all the macho boy-talk of the detectives' squad room. She becomes a mentor for Antoine (Jalil Lespert), a lonely young officer from the provinces, watching over him in a manner that seems poised between the maternal and the erotic.

But "Le Petit Lieutenant" turns out to be a bit colder, and more slippery, than we expect at first. Antoine initially seems to be the central character; we watch him graduate from the police academy, select an elite posting to Paris, celebrate with his mom and dad. Beauvois doesn't even let us know for 15 or 20 minutes that Antoine is married, and that his wife, a schoolteacher in the northern port city of Le Havre, has refused to move to Paris. (He's made his decision without even consulting her.)

Much of the film proceeds as a clipped police procedural, with Beauvois very slowly filling in character clues as we go. Caroline is a recovering alcoholic trying to rebuild her career; maybe the drinking resulted from the death of her son, who would be the same age as Antoine. Still, she's not entirely, or even largely, a likable person. When she tells Antoine he should make his wife jealous, it's not even flirting, or an invitation. The remark is instead more ambiguous than that, and faintly predatory.

Caroline and Antoine catch a crappy case, involving a Polish drunk who was beaten and drowned in a Paris canal, probably by a couple of Russian lowlife thugs. There's no great mystery and no amazing sleuthing involved, but a few things go wrong and the case leads to an explosive, unexpected tragedy that turns the film upside down. Baye has already won the César (the French Oscar) for this role, and you can see why. It's a masculine performance, in the implacable-yet-emotional vein of Eastwood or Belmondo, of a sort the French adore, yet performed by a beautiful woman who's been hardened only slightly by age.

Beauvois mostly plays by the genre rules, taking us to nice-looking locations in Burgundy, Normandy and Nice, as well as the City of Light. But "Le Petit Lieutenant" is a flinty, almost hardhearted work about characters who have lost almost everything in pursuit of some undefinable abstraction, like honor or their country or doing the right thing. It's an impressive film, but don't expect any warm fuzzies.

"Le Petit Lieutenant" opens Sept. 8 in New York and Oct. 6 in Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.

Fast forward: The Filipino-Israeli transgender connection, and mourning the Rev. Mychal Judge
Even the premise of Israeli director Tomer Heymann's documentary "Paper Dolls" is enough: After the start of the second Palestinian intifada in the late '90s. Israel's borders were closed to most laborers from the Occupied Territories. So who was going to do the jobs Israelis couldn't or wouldn't, like serve as caregivers to elderly men in the Orthodox suburbs of Tel Aviv? Why, transgendered people from the Philippines, of course!

In conceptual and philosophical terms, Heymann's movie is a little jumbled. It's part personal confession, part journalism, part anthropology, and part expiation for Israel's shoddy treatment of these short-term immigrants. I don't think that matters, because he's captured the singular and highly peculiar human stories behind one little story of our globalized economy. Exactly how and why a significant number of Filipino transvestites and transsexuals wound up in Israel is never explained, but there they were, and for Heymann that was enough.

He actually met his central characters, an amateur performing troupe who call themselves the Paper Dolls, behind the central bus station in Tel Aviv. (Apparently this is a known hangout in that city's extensive transgender scene.) Sally, Chiqui, Giorgio, Jan and the other Filipino trannies live in a kind of legal netherworld. As long as they work as caregivers, their presence is tolerated, but the instant they lose their jobs they become targets of deportation. They unanimously report that Israel is more tolerant of gay and transgender people than the Philippines are, but they remain permanent outsiders, in both cultural and religious terms.

Heymann helps the Dolls live out a dream of performing in Tel Aviv's hippest nightclub, but it doesn't go exactly as they had hoped. Some of the Dolls are barely tolerated by the families they work for, but one has a delightful, intimate father-son-and/or-daughter relationship with Haim, a worldly and generous man who has lost his voice to throat cancer. The marriage of convenience between Israel and the Dolls can't last -- most leave for home or move on to Britain -- but Heymann's record of their struggle is sad, sweet and oddly inspirational. (Now playing at Film Forum in New York. Opens Sept. 8 in Boston and Philadelphia, Sept. 29 in San Francisco, Oct. 6 in Los Angeles, Oct. 13 in Denver, Oct. 20 in Palm Springs, Calif., Nov. 3 in Santa Fe, N.M., and Dec. 1 in Dallas, with more engagements to follow.)

Speaking of inspiration, I wasn't sure I even wanted to see "Saint of 9/11," Glenn Holsten's documentary about the life and death of Father Mychal Judge, the New York fire chaplain captured in the famous Pietà-style Reuters photograph on that fateful date. Ultimately, I'm glad I did. Tears and emotions flow freely through the film, which successfully captures a little of the original horror and raw, unpoliticized emotion of that beautiful late summer day.

I don't know about Holsten's title -- from the sound of it, Judge himself would have laughed away the idea of sainthood -- but the tiny percentage of me that remains loyal to the Roman Catholic Church is happy to claim "Father Mike" as one of the finest examples of that tradition. Judge was an old-school New York character, a prodigiously generous Franciscan friar noted for his gifts of time, money and material goods to the homeless, the poor and especially to people with HIV. He was also a recovering alcoholic, a devoted Irish-American and a gay man.

Some of those things mixed well with the Fire Department of New York's dominant culture, and some didn't. But Judge was one of those figures Catholicism can occasionally produce who seems beyond judgment, beyond political divisions, beyond the deranged and exclusionary dogmas of his own faith. The simplicity and profundity of that faith, and the unquestionable nobility of Judge's death, are well captured here. Ian McKellen provides a gracious narration, and it's always nice to hear his oracular voice. But I'm not sure he's quite the right choice to narrate a film about a Brooklyn-born Irish priest. Couldn't someone have told him how to pronounce the name "Dympna"? (Now playing at the IFC Center in New York. Check the Web site for upcoming screenings around the world at 9/11 memorial services, film festivals and other venues.)

Finally, those of you in New York need to uncrowd your schedule a little bit and get down to Film Forum for its current retrospective look at the films of Kenji Mizoguchi, probably the greatest of all Japanese directors. Hell, he might be the greatest of all directors, if you can get your head out of the time-space contours of contemporary cinema and look at his movies afresh. It kicks off Sept. 8 with his supernatural-realist-feminist masterpiece from 1953, "Ugetsu." Future titles include the equally great "Sansho the Bailiff" (Sept. 15-16), "The Life of Oharu" (Sept. 17), "The Story of Last Chrysanthemums" (Sept. 19-20) and "Sisters of the Gion" with "Street of Shame" (Sept. 21). No "Utamaro and His Five Women" or "The 47 Ronin," sadly, but you can't ask for everything. If fate is kind, other film-curator types around the country are paying attention.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Beyond The Multiplex Movies