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Waitress

Affecting Romantic Comedy/Drama

Written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly (Trust, The Unbelievable Truth), Waitress, an off-kilter romantic comedy/drama, was received warmly at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival by audiences and critics alike. Fox Searchlight picked up the distribution rights from Shelley's producers, hoping to repeat last year's breakout success with Little Miss Sunshine. Maybe, maybe not, but Waitress does have a lot going for it, from an unconventional storyline, a clever plot device in the central character's pie obsession, quirky, offbeat dialogue, and Shelly's obvious gifts both behind and in front of the camera.

Jenna (Keri Russell) is stuck in a loveless marriage to the self-centered, abusive Earl (Jeremy Sisto). Jenna makes ends meet working as a waitress at Joe’s Diner, but she has unparalled skills as a pie maker, often creating novel recipes to reflect her moods. She also dreams of owning her own pie shop. Jenna's co-workers, Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly) also happen to be her best friends. Becky is also trapped in an unfulfilling relationship, caring for her invalid husband. Not surprisingly, she craves excitement and change. Dawn dreams of finding the right man who'll romance her and provide her with emotional stability. Her latest date, Ogie (Eddie Jemison), is everything but her ideal man. And all three women have to contend with Old Joe (Andy Griffith), a crotchety customer who also owns the diner.

Jenna's dreams come crashing down around her when she discovers she's pregnant. Unsure she wants to become a mother, especially with Earl as the overbearing, insecure father, Jenna falls in love with her new gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). As Jenna's due date gets closer, she has to decide whether she wants to leave Earl and "run away" with Dr. Pomatter, who seems to have everything Jenna is looking for in a man: compassion, wit, and looks. Dr. Pomatter, however, is also married, complicating an already messy situation. Still uncertain about her future, she begins to write letters to her as yet unborn child.

Shelly could have easily taken the road most traveled for indie filmmakers hoping for mainstream success, following genre conventions and formulaic plot devices, but to Shelly’s credit, she didn’t. Sure, the shots of Jenna baking while she describes the ingredients to her latest creation in voice over might remind some viewers of Like Water for Chocolate (minus the magical realism), and the young woman stuck in a loveless marriage scenario doesn’t exactly suggest originality, but it’s what Shelly does with these elements that matters.

Shelly knows how to set up audience expectations via familiar elements and plot developments, but just when Waitress looks like it’s going to slip into cliché or whimsy, Shelly smartly pulls back, all while working to give Jenna and her friends payoffs that don’t feel cheap or unearned.

Waitress also benefits from a note-perfect cast drawn primarily from network or cable television. Keri Russell ("Felicity") turns in a persuasive performance as the frustrated dreamer, Jenna. Nathan Fillion ("Drive", "Firefly") also turns in a solid performance, using the comic timing he’s honed on "Firefly" to often amusing effect (double takes and pregnant pauses are his forte), while Cheryl Hines ("Curb Your Enthusiasm"), Shelly, Jeremy Sisto ("Six Feet Under") and Andy Griffith ("Matlock", "The Andy Griffith Show") turn in fine, if occasionally overbroad, performances in supporting turns. As Dawn, Shelly is nothing short of watchable, balancing her character’s neediness with a poignant self-awareness of her own limitations.

Unfortunately, Adrienne Shelly’s untimely death last November looms heavy over any viewing or any review of Waitress. As deeply tragic as Shelly’s death was for her family, knowing that Shelly wrote, directed, and acted in her last film at the age of forty is also difficult for fans of Shelly’s early collaborations with Hal Hartley (Trust, The Unbelievable Truth), or her later contributions to the New York City indie film scene.

The heartbreak and melancholy associated with her death is frankly made worse when we learn that Shelly wrote Waitress as a love letter to her daughter. Whatever personal resonance Waitress has or will have for Shelly’s immediate family, it’s also a minor miracle in indie filmmaking, one worth recommending with only the slightest of reservations.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars