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Well-served: Waitress


Keri Russell whips up a batch of sass in her newest - project, the quirky Waitress.
  • Keri Russell whips up a batch of sass in her newest project, the quirky Waitress.

*Waitress (PG-13)

Kimball's Twin Peak
Near the midpoint of writer-director Adrienne Shelly's Waitress, its title character goes through a change.

Stuck in a marriage with a possessive lout and facing a pregnancy that only makes her feel more desperate and trapped, Jenna (Keri Russell) finds her only pleasure in making her much-loved pies at the diner where she works. But after developing an improbable relationship with her new, married gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), Jenna feels compelled to alter her lifestyle.

In a montage set to Cake's "Short Skirt/Long Jacket," the puzzled expression on Jenna's face gradually shifts to a megawatt smile that she carries everywhere she goes. With a brilliant bit of visual shorthand, Shelly conveys not just that Jenna is now happy, but that she had to get there by figuring out what happiness actually feels like.

It's important to start there, and not with the backstory that cloaks most everything else you've probably read about Waitress. Yes, Shelly died in a tragic, highly publicized New York City murder last fall. And yes, the premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival was emotional. And yes, there's an inevitable desire to look at the film through the lens of the filmmaker's passing.

But it does a disservice to Shelly's work to approach it with some kind of pity. Waitress doesn't need a pat on the head simply because of the tragedy surrounding it it's too beautifully crafted to be diminished in that way.

It starts off with the kind of quirky setting that might easily become oppressive without the proper touch. Jenna shares her miseries with her two co-workers and best gal pals, Becky (Curb Your Enthusiasm's Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Shelly). The diner's curmudgeonly owner, Joe (Andy Griffith), seems to delight in tormenting his staff with his meticulously picky meal orders.

Jenna's husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto) announces his arrival to pick her up from work by leaning on his horn from half a mile away. And Jenna pours her frustrations into her pies, creating desserts named for her unique life predicaments (for example, the "I Can't Handle an Affair Because It's Wrong & I Don't Want Earl to Kill Me Pie"). Everything could feel like it belongs in a sitcom, yet it never quite does.

Shelly somehow negotiates a tightrope walk between the fairy-tale gloss she casts over the story and the fundamental dissatisfaction in her characters' lives. While the specific location is never named, Shelly's narrative suggests a segment of the American South where abortion isn't ever really a thought, and the disappointments of a bad marital choice become a burden you just have to bear.

The performances are uniformly lovely, with Russell and Fillion in particular finding a wonderful tone for their guilt-ridden coupling. And considering that the film ultimately plays out as a love letter to mother-daughter relationships, Shelly hits some effectively tart notes, like when Jenna composes bitter letters to her unborn child that begin with, "Dear damn baby."

Naturally, the motherhood angle brings things back to Shelly's death and the fact that she left behind her own young daughter. Knowing that, you'd have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by Waitress' closing moments. Regardless of these real-life events, Waitress serves as a fresh, funny and heartwarming piece of movie-making.

It doesn't need your sympathy. It deserves better.

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