I first saw Adrienne Shelly in 1989, starring in Hal Hartley’s micro-indie The Unbelievable Truth
at Houston’s Landmark River Oaks Theatre. Shelly was a rarity among women in that age: She was blond, she was beautiful, yet she seemed truly weird, even weirder than Rosanna Arquette – squeaky and quirky before squeaky and quirky were cool. It was a tremendous relief to see an authentically weird girl instead of a Hollywood facsimile, a cheerleader in glasses. Shelly’s last movie, Waitress
, which she wrote and directed, is also authentically weird. It doesn’t fit the romantic-comedy mold, but somehow it’s a sunnier and more playful film than many that do – despite a storyline about an unplanned pregnancy, various affairs, spousal abuse, maternal ambivalence, and food-service employment. It has little to say in favor of marriage, which caused apparent distress to at least one dating couple in my audience, and its heroine regards her fetus as “an alien and a parasite.” All this, yet Waitress
is a delightful and optimistic comedy about getting past your mistakes and making the best of life. TV’s Felicity no more, Russell is all business as Jenna, a fiercely pragmatic diner waitress ground down by an oafish husband (Sisto) and saddled with morning sickness. “I ain’t never gonna get away from Earl now,” she mourns, pouring her emotions into the pies she bakes each day – whimsical creations filmed with such pastry lust that the movie has its own “pie gaffer.” Enter Dr. Pomatter (Fillion), the new obstetrician in town, who, unlike men before, asks Jenna questions and listens to the answers. They begin a spirited exam-room affair, which the movie treats as light human comedy rather than something shocking; in its best moment, Russell sails through a montage of adulterous Jenna’s daily activities with a ridiculous smile plastered across her face, as if she’s experiencing a mild, pleasant electric shock instead of her second trimester. Shelly, who wrote, directed, and co-stars, gets the pitch of the relationship exactly right. Though Fillion exhibits a dreamy thoughtfulness (he’s not unlike Hartley’s leading man, Martin Donovan), the movie is down-to-earth about its characters’ escapist tendencies. Yet it’s never dour, not even when town curmudgeon Griffith lectures people about morality and demands two waters, no ice. (He and the upstart Russell are quite evenly matched, and Shelly gives them enough time to really spar instead of just swapping retorts.) The movie doesn’t stand in judgment of its characters, which will probably disappoint audiences who think it ought to, but its breezy tone and ultimately affirming message should please comedy fans with an appreciation for the offbeat. In her third feature Shelly seems to have been coming into her own behind the camera, away from Hartley’s shadow, which makes the more tragic her death by homicide last November, before the film’s debut at Sundance.