Film responses: Babel & Sherrybaby

Living outside the U.S. isolates me from the buzz surrounding movies that I would normally experience were I still in Chicago — among cinephiles, reading the Chicago Reader, talking with my friends, most of whom loved movies, if not as much as I did. In Czech Republic, I’m pretty much on my own, free to choose and discover, or just as likely to be disappointed.

Every time I rent a DVD this happens. I haven’t been surprised much. (Although I did think The Fantastic Four (2005) was more fun than most said it was.) Until last week when I caught Babel at Kino Světozor. Forgive me for being dense but I didn’t realize what the film’s theme would be before I bought my ticket. Walking past the film poster it dawned on me: Tower of Babel, the confusion of languages. Uh oh. And I’m in a non-English speaking country. Just Czech subtitles. Then I thought, no, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are in it so it must be mostly in English. Nope, only about a third. So I had the novel opportunity to experience the theme, or rather, the suggestion of a theme, directly. I have a rudimentary knowledge of written Czech so I wasn’t completely adrift. Still, much of the meaning I derived from the movie came almost exclusively by reading body language and interpreting mise en scene, focusing on the physical performances of the non-English speaking actors and on the movement of the camera itself. I came away impressed with the direction. Obviously, my judgment of the script can only be a partial one.

I found the Japanese sections – the ones where I was the most clueless vis a vis both language and culture – to be the most interesting and rewarding. The main character of these sequences is a deaf girl acting out her feelings of isolation by flashing her pussy and coming on to every man she’s alone with. During a scene in a disco the soundtrack goes silent, simulating what she’s experiencing, or not sensing. It became a strange metaphor for, not only how I was experiencing the movie itself, but how I live life in a country where I don’t understand much of the language. For me it’s not isolating; it’s both a challenge and a comfort. Many times in my life I’ve wished for the silence this deaf girl aches to overcome.

Those were some of the things I was thinking about watching the film. Whether or not my admiration of the film continues once I see it subtitled is an open question. But during that one, unrepeatable experience, Babel gave me some important insights.

I’d heard nothing about Sherrybaby until its director, Laurie Collyer, received a Crystal Globe for direction at last year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, another instance when I was blissfully on my own, discovering new movies. The film’s star, Maggie Gyllenhaal, also won an award for best actress. I checked the film’s IMDB page and found that Sherrybaby was better received in Europe, both critically and popularly. This doesn’t surprise me. American movies about drug addicts tend to be overwrought and heavy-handed with performances to match. The overrated Requiem for a Dream is an obvious example, but the more recent and just as arty Candy, featuring an excessively trembling Heath Ledger, follows the familiar pattern of hammy actors forced to overact characters having all sorts of beautifully-shot physical breakdowns.

We get none of that sadistic bombast in this movie. Sherrybaby takes the novel approach of focusing on an addict’s attempted recovery. The mess Gyllenhaal’s character has made of her life is already behind her once the movie opens: She’s moving into a halfway house, just after getting out of prison. The film follows her attempt to reunite with her daughter, who has nearly forgotten her, and to create some sort of life for herself. It was painful to watch Sherry’s tender and pathetic attempts to get her daughter to love her, the mother she never really knew. The ending might seem telegraphed for some, but I found it to be the logical and dignified choice for a well-delineated and subtly presented character. It’s a happy ending, of sorts, but purchased dearly. How many Hollywood movies can make the hard choice the most satisfying one?

The script is a big reason why Sherrybaby works but it’s largely Gyllenhaal’s respect for the character that gives the movie life. Her performance is relaxed, restrained and focused. She’s not trying to win an Oscar, which is probably why she wasn’t nominated; she’s trying to create someone who feels real. I could judge Sherry Swanson, but I could also forgive her, as she eventually understands and forgives herself.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance of Eileen “Candy” Merrell, a sex-worker turned porn-star turned activist-auteur, is one of the great strengths and pleasures of HBO’s brave and indispensable series, The Deuce.

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