A singular example of a film that exists solely for its lead performance, which is brilliant, Sherrybaby is an extremely dismal experience. The plot in short: Sherry Swanson gets out of prison after three years, clean for the first time in ages, and thrilled to reconnect with her daughter. Her brother and sister-in-law are both assholes about letting her back into their lives. This makes Sherry extremely depressed, and she decides to give up on rebuilding her life.

Maggie Gyllenhaal gives the performance of her career thus far as Sherry. Her natural haziness and addled way of delivering lines work perfectly to evoke the character's detachment; the impact of her anger and frustration late in the film is possible only because of how flighty she acts in the beginning.

Everything around her, unfortunately, is textbook indie glumness. The film is shot in a verité style, handheld and grainy throughout, and the griminess of the visuals is replicated in the story. This is a world populated by grotesques, starting at Sherry's absurdly vicious family, to her bitter parole officer. That most of these characters later act in marginally sympathetic ways is less a sign of roundness and more of inconsistency.

Worse still is how rote and predictable it all is, and how very meaningless. When Sherry falls back on drugs, which we expect, it takes no apparent toll on her, and so when she abruptly reforms, which we expect as well, it does not feel like a triumph. The plot goes through its paces and then stops, without any sort of moral weight. Sherry's life is extraordinarily unpleasant, but not cathartic in the least. She just...gets better.

There's a strange schizophrenia in how much the filmmakers trust the audience. Certainly elements are left extremely vague - too much so, in the case of Sherry's apparently incestuous relationship with her father, which is touched on and then ignored - and yet many themes, particularly those concerning her feelings as a mother, are driven into the ground. Enough to ruin a good film, and Sherrybaby is hardly good. It's a chain of Sundance clichés whose ending is clear from the first scene, and whose reason for being is entirely limited to a bravura performance by a talented actress who needs an emergency lesson in picking better material.