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For her first feature-length, fiction film, "Sherrybaby," Prospect Heights writer-director Laurie Collyer not only managed to snag the summer’s "It" girl, Maggie Gyllenhaal, as her leading lady, but she culled a pitch perfect performance from 7-year-old Ryan Simpkins, who plays Sherry’s daughter Alexis.

Not impressed yet?

The 39-year-old filmmaker shot the movie on location in New Jersey, in just 25 days, while six-months-pregnant with her first child.

"It’s cool that I was pregnant," Collyer told GO Brooklyn. "I think it fed the storytelling for sure."

And the story of "Sherrybaby" is a heartrending one. Twenty-three-year-old Sherry (Gyllenhaal) is released from prison with a brown paper bag filled with her few possessions and a hopeful yearning for a reunion with her daughter. But while Sherry was doing time for robbery (to feed her heroin addiction), her daughter has been in the care of her brother (Brad Henke) and sister-in-law (Bridget Barkan). So when Sherry shows up sober and demanding to be called "Mom," the whole family has some painful adjustments to make.

Sherry’s ability to stay on the straight and narrow becomes more complicated by a series of indignities like a job counselor that expects sexual favors in return for a coveted position and antagonistic roommates in her halfway house.

As the film unfolds, so do revelations about Sherry’s upbringing that help to explain her post-prison conduct: a downward spiral of promiscuous behavior, drug abuse and parole violations.

Collyer’s "Sherrybaby" keeps viewers on the edge of their seat as they wonder if Sherry will ever be able to overcome her own worst enemy - herself - and bridge the ever-widening divide between the young ex-con she is and the responsible, sober, wage-earning mother she must become.

Real to reel

Collyer’s 1999 documentary, "Nuyorican Dream," which was her thesis film for the graduate program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, premiered in competition at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. In 2001, Collyer attended the Sundance Filmmaker’s Lab and the Cinefondation Residence of the Cannes Film Festival with her "Sherrybaby" screenplay.

The gritty realism of the film is informed by the six years Collyer spent working with children in the foster care system and "Nuyorican Dream," about a Sunset Park family.

"[’Sherrybaby’] is definitely inspired by this woman that I grew up with, but it’s not ultimately about her," said Collyer. "In some ways, ’Sherrybaby’ is more connected to ’Nuyorican Dream’ than to anything else. It’s kind of the same story, in a different context. One is a poor, urban Puerto Rican family and one is a middle class white family in New Jersey, but it’s the same story."

Collyer said it was important to her that the performance of her "Sherrybaby" leading lady be rooted in reality, insisting that Gyllenhaal (Steven Shainberg’s "Secretary," Oliver Stone’s "World Trade Center," Marc Forster’s "Stranger than Fiction") visit halfway houses, drug recovery programs and parole meetings.

"Because an actor has to rely on their imagination - clearly - to do the work that they do, and also their wealth of emotions, why reinvent the wheel?" asked Collyer. "Why have her imagine situations when you could put her in them and imagine from there I researched the script over two years, and I felt like the actor should participate somewhat in the research, too, to be true to the script that I wrote.

"Most actors do that kind of research for roles that are really outside their own experience and specifically for more social realism types of movies."

The gritty authenticity in Collyer’s script is brought to life with the documentary-esque handheld camera work of director of photography Russell Fine.

Kids are alright

While Gyllenhaal was clearly more than up to the task of taking on the persona of Sherry, some of the film’s most poignant scenes are when she is acting opposite child-actor Simpkins.

Collyer doesn’t take all the credit for coaxing the arresting performance from the little girl.

"My advice [for filmmakers] is to use your actors to direct the child and not try to do it all by yourself," said Collyer of her strategy. "And turn it into a game. That’s how you get kids to respond."

Brooklyn or bust

Collyer, who grew up in central New Jersey’s Union County, is a proud Brooklyn resident after being rooted here for five years. So when "Sherrybaby" was one of the films shown at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in May’s "Sundance Institute at BAM" series, it gave her a special thrill that a Park City, Utah screening could not.

"It gave me an opportunity to show [’Sherrybaby’] to all of my friends and family, so it was cool on a personal level," said Collyer of the Fort Greene screening. "I think it started a New York buzz for the movie, for sure." Collyer secured a distributor for the film just prior to the BAM screening, and "Sherrybaby" will be released in Manhattan on Sept. 8.

While Collyer said, "I hope to stay in Brooklyn forever," she observed that the borough is getting prohibitively expensive for this up-and-coming filmmaker and her family.

What’s next?

Although she’s still busy promoting "Sherrybaby," Collyer said she’s eager to get behind the camera again and has several irons in the fire.

"I’m not taking a break," she said. "I want to start making a movie as soon as possible."

While "Nuyorican Dream" and "Sherrybaby" centered on somber themes, Collyer says she’ll be going in a new direction on her next film.

"I think the next one will be somewhat of a departure, actually," she revealed. "No more drugs or prison," said Collyer with a laugh. "I think I’ve done that story."


"Sherrybaby" opens Sept. 8 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas [Broadway at 63rd Street in Manhattan, (212) 757-0359] and Sunshine Cinema [139-143 East Houston St. between first and second avenues in Manhattan, (212) 330-8182]. For screening times and ticket prices, call the theaters.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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