Writer-director Adrienne Shelly is probably best known as an actress in the films of indie auteur Hal Hartley (Trust, The Unbelievable Truth). Hartley's films have a theatricality and off-kilter quality that's been a turnoff to me.
Shelly's Waitress, which she wrote, directed, and plays a key supporting role in, has the same qualities, but here they end up being a plus. This is because Waitress has a guileless sweetness rare among American indie films and because here the off-kilter tone serves to keep this sweetness from falling into sentimentality.
Set largely at Joe's Pie Dinner in an unnamed Southern town and centering around a "pie genius" baker and waitress, Jenna (Keri Russell), and her co-workers, this schematic fable of a movie plays more than a bit like a sitcom — a blend of The Andy Griffith Show and Alice.
Joe's Pie Diner might be in Mayberry, and Joe himself is even played by Griffith. But this setting is no mere idyll: Waitress is like a Griffith show subplot transposed into a real, contemporary setting — a world with abusive husbands, unwanted pregnancies, and workplace infidelities.
And yet, there's nothing smug about this juxtaposition of innocence and messiness. Waitress isn't trying to be a big-screen Desperate Housewives, and it isn't trying to subvert its evocative all-American surfaces. It just is.
Jenna, unhappily married to abusive husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto, saddled with the film's most poorly written part), spends her days in the happy company of co-workers Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Shelly). She spends the rest of her time in her head — daydreaming new pie recipes and a way out. She pockets large portions of the tip money Earl demands every night, hiding it around the house with sights on turning it into an entry fee for a big-money pie contest that can finance her freedom.
But Jenna's plan keeps getting foiled, first by an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy. Visiting the new doctor in town (Nathan Fillion) to verify her condition, Jenna is congratulated, but she swiftly disabuses the doctor of any notion that this is a happy situation. At first, the doctor thinks she plans to terminate the pregnancy, but Jenna corrects that assumption as well: "I'm having the baby and that's that. It's not a party, though."
Next, Jenna's plan to escape, baby in tow, is complicated when Earl finds her money stash and she's forced to concoct a story of saving for nursery paraphernalia. Jenna writes in the "letter to baby" section of the birth book Dawn gives her: "Dear damn baby: If you ever want to know the story of how we bought your damn crib ... ."
This sourness rubs up against the movie's surface cheer in a complicated dynamic that suffuses the whole film. (At one point, when Earl slaps Jenna, an entire local preview crowd gasped, because the moment hits you harder than a score of killings in a typical action blockbuster.) Late in the film, in a warm, sexy, lovely scene where Jenna finds herself in her own kitchen, baking a "Lonely Chicago" pie for the good doctor while her husband is away, Waitress seems capable of heading in any direction at all — tragedy, comedy, farce, reverie.
Shelly, who was killed last fall in her native New York, apparently wrote Waitress while pregnant with her daughter, and that's ultimately what it's about: the anxiety — the worry and hope and doubt — of impending parenthood. It's an odd, beguiling little movie that could charm a pretty large potential audience. It'd be a shame if it didn't get the chance to do so.