Gut-Check, Please: Waitress? Russell needs tips on managing men and motherhood.
Gut-Check, Please: Waitress? Russell needs tips on managing men and motherhood.

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Waitress has received plenty of attention for a reason that has nothing to do with its quality: The film’s writer, director, and co-star, Adrienne Shelly, was murdered shortly after the movie wrapped and was submitted to the Sundance Film Festival. Shelly never got to hear any reactions to Waitress. She died before she could find out that it was accepted to the festival.

Happily, there’s no need for critics to go soft and sentimental because of that tragedy—Waitress is excellent, a lovely legacy for the late indie “it” girl. It’s also a triumph for Keri Russell, the film’s star. Russell plays Jenna, a Southern diner waitress with a talent for making pies. She’s miserable with her rotten husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto), whose behavior ranges from annoying (honking repeatedly as he’s getting close when he picks her up) to abusive (casually belittling her and grabbing her when he’s angry). Jenna is squirreling money away—Earl takes her tips every night—and hopes to leave him. But things get complicated when she finds out she’s pregnant. Since their relationship isn’t exactly affectionate, Jenna knows it happened the one night he got her wasted. “I do stupid things when I drink,” she tells her co-workers. “Like sleep with my husband.”

Waitress is a small movie, but its characters, its humor, and its warmth have a universal appeal. Jenna decides to have the child, dreaming up pies in an effort to stave off her unhappiness about the situation. The resulting concoctions include “I Hate My Husband Pie.” Or, when she finds herself attracted to her new, bumbling doctor (Nathan Fillion), the “I Can’t Have No Affair Because It’s Wrong and I Don’t Want Earl to Kill Me Pie.” Perhaps the most appealing thing about Jenna is that she doesn’t suffer from movie-motherhood syndrome, going all gooey over the prospect of a little bundle. “I’m having the baby and that’s that,” she informs a perplexed Dr. Pomatter. “It’s not a party.”

Jenna’s storyline is central, but Shelly beautifully fleshes out the supporting characters as well, including Becky (Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Shelly), her fellow lovelorn servers, and Joe (Andy Griffith), the cranky owner of the diner who comes in regularly to give Jenna hell with his picky orders and eventually provides the counsel and support that ultimately leads her to a life-changing decision. They’re all likable while being far from saccharine: Becky has more to her than what threatens to be clichéd, Flo-like sass; the slightly dorky Dawn is lonely but not pitiable as she begins a relationship with someone who initially seems to be a loser—and even he isn’t drawn as a misunderstood prince, just a decent person. The sharpest portrait, though, is Griffith’s Joe, a character that every waitress in neighborhood joints countrywide will probably recognize.

Russell is the movie’s biggest surprise in her first leading big-screen role. Her Jenna is sweet with a side of tart and subtle all the way through. It’s all in her face, from Jenna’s mulling-it-over grimace when Earl is begging for sex to her outright horror when she spots someone else’s screaming kid. Sisto is also slimily (and sometimes humorously) perfect as the poisonous husband who isn’t a cardboard monster but occasionally elicits moments of sympathy that more acutely demonstrate the tough spot Jenna’s in. Though full of tiny truths, Waitress’ main message is one that you can’t help but hope Shelly practiced herself: “This life will kill you,” Joe advises Jenna. “Make the right choices.”