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One after another, potential attendees of the musical Waitress sheepishly admit that they have not, before finally one guy looks up at the marquee and notices “Based Upon the Motion Picture Written By Adrienne Shelly.”
Airdate: 8 p.m. Wednesday, December 1
Director: Andy Ostroy
This captures the strange and specific and tragic nature of Shelly’s fame. Movie nerds know her as the star of several pivotal Hal Hartley films, but Waitress has been a theatrical blockbuster in New York, London and as a touring production and the film it was based upon was a sleeper hit, earning Shelly an Independent Spirit nomination for best screenplay. It’s a charming, wonderfully empathetic and frequently beautiful movie that would have marked Shelly as a storyteller with boundless potential, except that its 2007 Sundance Film Festival premiere came only months after the 40-year-old Shelly was murdered in her West Village office.
Ostroy is the director of Adrienne and he produced 2009’s Serious Moonlight, based on Shelly’s screenplay, but he is not a filmmaker by trade. He was, however, Shelly’s husband and the father to Sophie, two at the time of Shelly’s death and 16 now.
Given its auspices, the strengths and weaknesses of Adrienne are thoroughly predictable. It isn’t polished and it isn’t focused, and at times there’s a rawness to its emotional exposure that left me feeling a little uncomfortable. But in those respects, it’s a wholly reasonable expression of the sort of grief that, even 14 years later, defies understanding. Adrienne is partially a 100-minute affirmation of Shelly’s talents, but it’s just as much Ostroy’s attempt to come to terms with her death and, more specifically, the violent nature of that death.
Each of these approaches could have made for a documentary on its own: One a film about Shelly’s recognition, early in her acting career, that she had a voice that wasn’t being fully served through acting and her attempts to carve out a writing and directing space in an independent film movement that welcomed mavericks, even as it still prioritized men. One about the 14 years of Shelly’s absence, still revolving around her colleagues and co-workers, but just as much about Ostroy and his daughter, the ways they’ve continued with their lives without moving on. And finally, the documentary about a horrible crime, initially ruled a suicide until Ostroy’s persistence led to an arrest and confession and a 25-year sentence for a man Ostroy spent years hoping to someday confront in person.
Telling Ostroy that a better movie might have been made concentrating on a single path is, I suppose, like telling him how to grieve. To be sure, compared to HBO Max’s execrable What Happened, Brittany Murphy?, Adrienne is much less exploitative and obsessed with an untimely death.
Shelly’s life was well documented by her parents — her father Shelly, who died when she was 12, provided Adrienne Levine with her stage name — in her youthful acting days, and subsequently behind the scenes of her various features and subsequent shorts. Ostroy found footage from a documentary Shelly was working on about happiness, deploying it here to devastating effect. From Hartley to all the stars of the feature version of Waitress to many of the key figures in the subsequent musical, Shelly’s collaborators are well-represented and speak to her resistance to typecasting as an actress and her sensitive handling of performers as a director. All of those attributes are visible in Waitress.
The personal portrait of Shelly is weightier stuff, with Ostroy putting his own emotional journey, and Sophie’s, front-and-center. It’s unsettling how much Sophie resembles her mother and I’d guess viewers will be split as to whether a 16-year-old girl really should be living out this pain on-camera even if it’s under her dad’s shepherding. I doubt there’s a good answer. At times, the interactions feel more therapist-patient than father-daughter and there’s no way to guess whether, in five years, Sophie will be horrified that this experience was playing out on HBO or if she’ll treasure it.
Not for me to say, but it’s hard to imagine anybody avoiding tears when Sophie reads the first birthday card/letter that her mother wrote for her. Ostroy uses spare animated sequences, with dialogue read by father and daughter, to capture the conversations they had about her mother over the years and, again, as cynical as I may be, my heart was appropriately tugged.
The part where Ostroy explores Shelly’s murder makes for more dramatic, if contrived, cinema and comes across as something he’s doing for himself more than the audience. There’s power to the arc he takes in trying to set up a face-to-face meeting with the killer, as well as earlier conversations with the detective in charge. It just doesn’t seem to go with the rest of the documentary.
It adds a hook, if not really a consistent filmmaking approach, propelling the documentary along. For me, it’s enough to make sure that audiences know or at least remember the woman who appeared in some great movies, made a special movie herself and deserved to be making films and documentaries today instead of being the subject of one this sad.
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Robert De Niro