It’s hard to really write about Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress without acknowledging the tragedy of Shelly’s death. The actress who had segued into a writing and directing role had only recently completed the film and was awaiting news of its acceptance into the Sundance Film Festival when was she murdered ten years ago last week. Despite being accepted into the festival, and eventually purchased by Fox Searchlight for distribution, the coverage of the movie at the time largely existed in the shadow of Shelly’s murder.
While another of her scripts, Serious Moonlight, was posthumously produced with friend and Waitress co-star Cheryl Hines stepping in as director, Waitress firmly remains the prevailing legacy of Shelly’s work. As such I will try from here on to focus on it as a self-contained work and not as a tombstone.
A brightly shot, quirkily paced dramedy, Waitress seems on the surface to be a simple film. Sweet, but perhaps devoid of any substance. Just like the intricate pies that protagonist Jenna concocts in her mind as a zenlike mental exercise, the sweetness of the movie masks layers that combine to make a unique and interesting blend of flavor. Some of the parts on their own don’t always feel strong but when cooked together they contribute to a vibrant film.
The plot is simple, Jenna is a waitress in a southern small town pie diner that finds herself unexpectedly pregnant with her abusive, controlling husband’s baby and then even more unexpectedly begins an affair with her OB-GYN. Jenna has been tucking money away secretly hoping to enter a pie-making contest and win enough money to escape her husband, a plan that is majorly thwarted by the child on the way. The baby quickly becomes a symbol of Jenna’s perceived complete lack of agency, and her resentment for the place her life has taken her.
The entire movie is contained mostly within three locations, Jenna’s home, the doctor’s office, and the diner, where she works. The simple, contained feeling of this limited setting aspect is that it seems to represent the lack of freedom in her life. She’s living in a cage, with no contact outside of her work friends and her husband and no ability to go anywhere that she can’t get a ride to or scrimp together enough for the bus fair.
The cast is infectiously charming. Hines and Shelly serve as Jenna’s coworkers at the diner and the trio have a general sense of concern and affection for each other, in between passive aggressive swipes and polite southern criticism. Nathan Fillion brings the perfect playfully awkward and fumbling energy to his role as Dr. Pomatter, while Lew Temple does a lot with a little as diner manager Cal. Jeremy Sisto and Andy Griffith (in one of his last roles) both seem a bit over the top as Jenna’s husband and the curmudgeonly old owner of the pie shop that only Jenna can get along with. The characters can be cartoonish at times, especially the last two, but in a way this almost seems to make it work, as if Jenna is so worn down by her life that she sees the people around her mostly as two dimensional stereotypes. The only real misstep in the cast is Eddie Jemison as Ogie, the overbearing suitor of Shelly’s Dawn, whose spontaneous poetry and immediate head over heels infatuation with Dawn feels like a forced in subplot.
Just like Jenna bringing together the ingredients of her pie, Kerri Russell as Jenna is the heart of the movie. She perfectly nails the forces smiles and dead stares of a woman who hates her life, as well as the genuine fear that Jenna has of her husband. So often in films in which a character feels dead inside, the actor will play the role with a complete lack of emotion, often even seeming bored. But with Russell, we get the real visceral sense of a woman desperate to break free, of someone whose profound sadness and self defeat has truly captured her. There are moments when her stares into space betray such intense pain, but even more heartbreaking are the times when she’s clearly forcing herself to smile.
Shelly’s voice lives on beyond this film, both with the aforementioned Serious Moonlight, as well as the new stage musical adaptation of Waitress, with music from Sara Bareilles and staring a cast that includes Orange is the New Black’s Soso, Kimiko Glenn as Dawn. The Adrienne Shelly Foundation, started by Shelly’s widower Andrew Ostroy, has a mission statement of contributing to the enrichment of female filmmakers to follow in her footsteps. All of these are amazing tributes to Shelly’s memory, but watching the marriage of her writing with her visual eye and her ability to draw out a performance like Russell’s, there’s a strong sense that she was a talented director who was just getting started.