Recommended Viewing: Cinema or DVD
So many American indies fall back on the clichés of romantic obsession and love being the means and sole goal of any lead character. As an actress and as a director, Adrienne Shelly has indulged in that, often to good but not always to great effect. I came into Waitress with the expectations of that kind of film, and boy, was I pleasantly surprised that it wasn't.
I think what surprised me most was that the naïve and fun-loving filmmaking style was balanced by a mature, even brokenhearted storyline. In Waitress, love is not something that will save the day. Instead, love is a flash in the pan that will at best dissolve quickly and at worst lead to a drawn-out life of purgatory or pain.
Keri Russell, in a revelatory performance, plays Jenna, the lead waitress at a semi-rural Southern pie shop. She has a gift when it comes to baking pies, with an ability to come up with recipes based on her mood or on the pie’s desired effect, such as the cinnamon spice custard “Kick in the Pants Pie.” She’s also trapped in a marriage with a needy and abusive husband, inspiring the “I Hate My Husband Pie.” As the movie opens, she’s inspired to make “I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie,” but her desire to keep the baby effectively kills her motivation to run away, which of course leads to the “Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie.”
Yes, the pie names are cutesy, but the emotions running under them are not. And she is not the only one trapped in an unhappy relationship. In fact, everyone in this town is unlucky in love. Her fellow waitress Becky (Cheryl Hines) has an invalid husband and an eye for an adulterous relationship with a married man. Her other coworker Dawn (Adrienne Shelly) is unhappily single who is then stalked by a man she rejected from a personals date, but because of his persistence she settles for him. Jenna herself looks for happiness and affection through the attention of her doctor, who is also married. In this town, no relationship is a good relationship.
Against this backdrop, Shelly has crafted a story of growing self-awareness and hope. Without this dark background, the movie would have been saccharine enough to send you into diabetic shock. Without the levity and some of the indie film quirkiness, it would have been too depressing to be deemed “entertainment.”
As it stands, Waitress strikes a wonderful balance of bitter and sweet, of darkness and light. It earns its tears by the end, even without the knowledge of the unsavory murder of the director, Ms. Shelly, late last year.