It's lovely that Keri Russell, former teen star of the long running television series Felicity, is starring in movies. She has the presence to carry a film and she proves it in her first leading role in Adrienne Shelly's Waitress. To Felicity fans, Russell's turn as Jenna, a pregnant waitress who finds release in baking pies, is going to feel like a reunion of sorts, a veritable reincarnation of the independent, but slightly lost young woman on a mission to find herself -- though this time she is knocked up, her suitors are far less desirable, and she has no liberal arts education to fall back on.
Adrienne Shelly: An Indie Icon
It's difficult to talk about Adrienne Shelly's third feature film as you would about any movie. Shelly, of course, was tragically and senselessly murdered not long after the film's completion, only weeks before the film was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival. In the independent film world, Shelly is an icon of sorts. She starred in two Hal Hartley films at arguably the start of the independent movement, The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1990). No offense to Hartley -- whose latest film Fay Grim opens soon -- but Shelley was the heart and soul of those films, a beautiful blonde with a ponytail who quoted George Washington and wore round glasses with equal aplomb.
Shelly's death makes me want to treat this movie with kid gloves, to root for it, turn it into something more than it is. Waitress
received a glowing reception at Sundance and has a great distribution deal with Fox Searchlight -- success in itself. The film also has the Keri Russell factor, which makes for an eminently watchable experience. The actress looks adorable in her blue waitress uniform and white Ked's sneakers. Her Southern accent (which comes and goes) is slightly off-putting, and so is the fact that a young, impoverished waitress, unhappily married to an abusive man (Jeremy Sisto), carries her unwanted baby to term without even once considering an abortion.
An abortion, of course, would equal no movie -- the thin plot hinges around Jenna's pregnancy and her subsequent adulterous affair with her hunky ob/gyn (Nathan Fillion, whose appealing presence is another plus.) But this enormous hole in the plot undermines the story.
The Quirky Factor
Shelly's script suffers in other areas as well, the biggest problem being the non-stop quirky factor - a frequent fault of independent films that try too hard. Jenna is buoyed by her two best friends, fellow waitresses Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (played by Adrienne Shelly in a pair of genuine hipster cat's eye glasses). Dawn has a cute romance with an elfin man who recites spontaneous poetry. There is also cute, old-timey bus that Jenna often rides to work and a pie diner that screams with authentic charm. The film is set in a nameless small Southern town, but the earnest attempt to give the film a timeless quality only leaves it rootless. Even Jenna's abusive husband gets to deliver cute and quirky lines, getting frequent laughs that somehow manage to downplay the fact that the man hits Jenna and controls her finances.
Interestingly enough, the film's altogether cutest element works: Jenna's pies. She is constantly inventing new pies, all of them with clever names like" I Don't Want Earls's Baby Pie" and "I Can't Have No Affair Because It's Wrong And I Don't Want Earl to Kill Me Pie." The pies look great on screen, the combination of ingredients are unique and mouth watering, and the titles themselves are genuinely funny; in the end, it's almost possible to accept Jenna as a feminist heroine. Pies are more than a hobby, but a route to an independent life where inferior men have no provence to call the shots.
The little blond toddler who holds Jenna's hand at the film as they walk down a dirt path to mythic happiness is Shelley's own daughter - a heartbreaking detail I find necessary to share, because I chose not to write about Waitress like any other movie. I wanted Waitress to be better than it is. Perhaps I am being unduly rough on a small, charming movie, but I'm a tough fan, loyal but still demanding.
The non profit Adrienne Shelly Foundation has been set up in Shelly's name to help support the careers of women filmmakers.