[A disclaimer: The cinetrix is way too lazy to do a Lexis/Nexus search and tote up how many reviews of Adrienne Shelly's final film resort to easy-bake-oven buzzwords like "confection" or "bittersweet." Plus, it might bum me out.]
On Monday night I finally saw Waitress, with my mother-in-law and another couple, old friends, at Woodstock's fetching bijoux of a theatre. What a treat--I thought I'd missed out on its theatrical run entirely.
Better still, I liked it, which came as a relief because one doesn't wish to speak ill of the dead. The neurosis of Sudden Manhattan is nowhere to be found in Waitress. In its place is the manic romantic energy and bright colors of Shelly's short Lois Lives a Little [with just a touch of Trust in the doctor's delivery of his job description]. But I loved this film most for its deep and abiding ambivalence--hell, horror--about pregnancy and motherhood. Academics are no doubt scribbling away about this cinematic Zeitgeist moment that brings us Knocked Up and no abortion*--to which I say, have at it, fellas.
I want to talk about the South, because that's what we talked about in the car on the way home. Why did native New Yorker Shelly set her pie-baking fable in an unnamed Southern Shangri-la? Sure, it gave her license to cast sly Andy Griffith as Old Joe, a role that skews toward Mayberry but suggests he's gone down a few Lonesome Rhodes on his way to the pie diner. But there are diners in upstate New York and downtown Minneapolis, too. And women working service jobs with bad husbands honking from the car at the end of a shift are one of this nation's most plentiful renewable resources. So what gives?
I suspect it has something to do with the slower rhythms, the "hon"s punctuating interactions that happen again and again, deepening over time like secular amens. Yes, this cinematic South licenses all sorts of aw-shucks bad grammar, playing-to-the-balcony eccentricity, and walleyed nostrums.
There's also a sense of sometimes suffocating small-town familiarity, of being known and watched and misunderstood and passed by that this film captures and capitalizes on. We think we know all about knocked-up waitresses like Jenna, but we don't. We can't. What's important is that Jenna keeps trying, and that Shelly takes the time to show us that what's inside her head is much more than meringue.
*A word about the a-word. Several critics tut-tutted about the absence of abortion as an option in this film. I would invite them to do a little research about the availability of this procedure outside the big city. The subject does come up, remember, but once Jenna's practitioner tells her
they don't perform the procedure there, she's pretty much stuck. How's she gonna get to North Carolina, Florida, or Tennessee--the only states in the southeast without a mandatory waiting period--and make it back undetected for her next shift? Girlfriend is driven almost everywhere by her controlling husband;
otherwise she bums a ride or takes a bus and squirrels away tips so she can
make her escape once and for all. Choice doesn't amount to much without access.