Dir/Scr: Adrienne Shelly. US. 2007. 104mins
The third and final feature by Adrienne Shelly, who was murdered last aUTUMN, Waitress is a bittersweet, pungent reminder of the formidably smart and gracious touch she possessed in front of and behind the camera. The story of a small town pregnant woman who charmingly befuddles a handsome young doctor, the movie is best appreciated and classically understood as a coloUrful, vibrant Southern fable.
The tone is easily misconstrued as light and breezy, the central story pinging from screwball farce to comedy about marriage. The movie is explores darker intimations of strain, heartbreak and the agony of being poor and socially marginalised. Sometimes the transition between light and dark occurs too abruptly, and Shelly loses temporary control.
The former protege of Hal Hartley, she shared with her best known colleague a droll, avid turn of the phrase, where the sinister and selfish is almost uniformly punished.
Fox Searchlight paid a reported US $5m to acquire the title. Premiering in the Spectrum section at Sundance, Waitress is modest, funny and engaging. It has a ready, appreciable audience, particularly among women and younger audiences who know star Keri Russell from her work on the popular television program Felicity.
DVD and cable figure to be strong players. Internationally, the movie's range is far more specialised, likely limited to English-language markets.
The work unfolds in a studio bound, mythical world. The setting is a pleasant, comically drawn Southern hamlet that appears both inviting and restrictive.
It's a world shaped by television, the central workplace conjuring the network situation comedy Alice, the diner owned and operated by an eccentric Southern gentleman played by iconic television star Andy Griffith.
Beautiful, radiant Jenna (Russell) is an artist of sorts, the town's legendary maker of pies, producing elaborate, beautifully arranged works that quickly evolves into her private sanctuary from unhappy marriage to the uncontrollably possessive Earl (Sisto). Distressed to discover the early stages of her pregnancy, Jenna plots her escape, encouraged by her best friends at the diner, Becky (Hines) and Dawn (Shelly).
The arrangement is structured as a farce. The divine intervention turns up in the form of nervous, jittery doctor (Fillion) who offers a tangible release from Jenna's private hell. After a succession of awkward glances and nervous exchanges, the two consummate their attraction, initiating a brazen affair that provides a palpable example of a life outside her crushingly narrow existence.
The camera loves Russell's face, the movie gaining a quickness and comic verve that is fun and exciting to witness. The movie flows with precision and speed in these passages. The secondary material, the workplace affairs, Dawn's over-anxious suitor (Jemison), is somewhat awkwardly deployed, the humor is both too broad and insistent to play off the low key, observational rhythms of the primary storyline.
Furthermore Shelly struggles introducing the darker threads all together, particularly the casual violence Earl unloads on Jenna. Shelly recovers in her sharp and expressive work with actors.
Russell is sublime in one of her most emotionally detailed film parts, combining a starry eyed dreamer with a combustible independence and freedom of thought that is exhilarating. Fillion is the suave comic foil, playing the Henry Fonda part, nervous, gallant and true.
Apart from Matthew Irving's cinematography, the technical contribution is plain and relaxed. It's the unvarnished sensibility that finally carries Waitress. The movie's a fable streaked with sharp, serrated edges. Tragically it was the work of a young director rising to the challenge and finding her voice.
Night & Day Pictures
The Film Sales Co