Pastry and Problems

Movies Reviews Adrienne Shelly
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[Above: Adrienne Shelly, Cheryl Hines, Keri Russell]

Director/Writer: Adrienne Shelly
Cinematographer: Matthew Irving
Starring: Keri Russell, Nathan fillion, Cheryl Hines
Studio/Running Time: Fox Searchlight, 104 mins.

It was tragedy enough when actress/filmmaker Adrienne Shelly, best known for starring in two of Hal Hartley’s early features

, was murdered last year at her New York apartment. But filmgoers are about to discover that part of this tragedy is just now arriving: the film that she wrote, directed and finished right before her death is a beautiful little comedy—earthy, unpredictable, sweet and a clear reminder of what we’ve lost.

Waitress takes place in a small-town café that only serves pies. It’s a “pie café.” To populate the local institution with regulars and employees, Shelly turned to television actors and tapped into a comic performance style built around efficient, snappy dialogue. Cheryl Hines from Curb Your Enthusiasm, Jeremy Sisto from Six Feet Under, Nathan Fillion from Firefly, Shelly herself and a newcomer named Andy Griffith—from some show whose name I can’t recall—all give fine, funny performances.

It’s a strong ensemble but, as the name suggests, the movie focuses on one character in particular—Jenna, the eponymous waitress and pie chef played by Keri Russell, TV’s Felicity. Facing a growing number of personal problems, she’s the heart, soul and face of the film, the keel that keeps the goofier elements from tipping the story into farce. Russell has intense eyes, and she curls her lip and talks in a low Southern drawl like Elvis might have if he’d ever worked a hard day in a pie café.

But working in the café isn’t the problem. The problem is her childish, whiny, violent husband, Earl, who empties the bills from her pockets at the end of each day as he inquires after his dinner, and the more pressing problem is that she’s pregnant. “Oh, I’ll have this baby,” she tells the doctor, but it’s clear she’s not happy about it.

By comparison, making pies is a joyful oasis, and that’s exactly how Shelly shoots their creation, as if she’s watching a work of art in the making. Jenna invents pies like her late mother did, and she christens each one in voice-over. The I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie is a brie-and-egg quiche with a smoked ham center.

Outside of her pie reveries, Jenna’s life becomes more complicated by the day, and we might expect a comedy like this to lift her out of her jam. Maybe the right man could stroll into her life or a miracle could occur, but instead Shelly keeps raising the heat to force her character to act for herself. Late in the film, a surprising note from a friend drops into Jenna’s lap, but she covers an inked detail with her thumb so we can’t see it, because Shelly has something better in store than a solution that drops from the blue sky, and it kicks in the moment Jenna gives birth to the child she dreaded for months. Motherhood changes a woman, and that’s just the sort of miracle this movie has no trouble embracing.

When she died last October, Adrienne Shelly left behind a husband and an 18-month-old daughter, and I suspect that we can tell what she thought of them and herself by watching the movie that she wrote when she was eight-months pregnant and directed when she had a new baby girl. It’s a love letter of the first degree, the kind that rises out of trepidation and confusion, almost by accident, with a sudden force of absolute clarity. A terrible turn of events ended this filmmaker’s life, so her love letter is now also a time capsule, a bottle of fear, a tight hug of joy, a glowing ode to a child, to personal triumph, to friendship and to savory pies, in roughly that order.