2006, Movie, R, 96 mins


Maggie Gyllenhaal cements her reputation as a gifted, if somewhat aloof, actress in Laurie Collyer's sad character piece about a 25-year-old ex-con trying to reconnect with her young daughter after doing time in prison. Having served three years for petty theft, recovering alcoholic and heroin addict Sherry Swanson (Gyllenhaal) is determined to do whatever it takes to reclaim the child she neglected before her arrest. After checking into her room at a New Jersey halfway house and reporting to her hard-nosed parole officer, Officer Hernandez (a hammy Giancarlo Esposito), Sherry contacts her brother, mild-mannered, solidly middle-class Bobby (Brad William Henke), who's been caring for his young niece, Alexis (Ryan Simpkins), in his comfortable suburban home. Bobby seems genuinely glad to see Sherry, even though he never made it on visiting days. But Bobby's wife, Lynette (Bridget Barkan), has a hard time hiding her displeasure that her troubled sister-in-law is back in Alexis' life. Sherry's halter tops, too-short skirts, cheap blonde dye job, poor judgment and insistence on telling Alexis exactly where she's been for the past three years and why is just too much for Lynette to take. Following Officer Hernandez's instructions, Sherry goes looking for work — she'd like a job working with kids, and orally services her job counselor to make sure she gets one — and attends a 12-step meeting, where she meets Dean Walker (Danny Trejo), a tough ex-drug user who remembers Sherry from her days as an underage stripper at The Paradise. But Sherry's focus is entirely on Alexis, and her deep-seated feelings of failure and powerlessness are exacerbated when Sherry begins to suspect that Lynette and Bobby are deliberately trying to keep her from seeing her daughter. When Alexis' enthusiasm over meeting her mother turns to cold discomfort and Sherry realizes Lynette has instructed Alexis to call her mother "Sherry" instead of "Mommy," it's more than Sherry can take. She begins to drink, and a reunion with her father (Sam Bottoms), a nice-enough-seeming guy who still treats Sherry like a child and apparently taught her all about the only power she thinks she has at her disposal — her body — leads to worse. Collyer directs with a fine, subtle touch — nothing about this familiar story feels hackneyed or exploitative — and assembled a solid supporting cast, but this is Gyllenhaal's show, and her performance is all the proof anyone needs that her much-buzzed-about talent really does live up to the hype. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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