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“From 16 to 22,” says ex-con Sherry Swanson (Maggie Gyllenhaal), “heroin was the love of my life.” But it’s been two-and-a-half years since her last hit and with a three-year stretch for robbery behind her she’s determined to rebuild that life from the ground up. First on her wish-list is to reclaim her illegitimate daughter, who’s been raised by her aunt and uncle while Mommy’s been away. But Sherry hasn’t reckoned on the baggage that goes along with being a freshly paroled felon – suffocating halfway houses, strict curfews and a hard-bitten probation officer (Giancarlo Esposito) who fully expects her to screw up again. And the way Gyllenhaal plays it, you know it’s only a matter of time. An accident waiting to happen, pathologically needy and blind to her disruptive influence, this girl is seriously damaged goods – the result, in all probability, of childhood abuse creepily suggested by the over-affectionate hug she receives from father Bob (Sam Bottoms), but also of a teenage dependence on skag that’s left her stuck in perpetual adolescence. How can she care for little Alexis (Ryan Simpkins) when she can hardly look after herself? As much as we want her to succeed, we know it would be a disaster – something even Sherry admits in those rare moments when she allows her blinkered naivety to slip.

A stand-out from Sundance 2006 receiving a belated UK release off the back of Gyllenhaal’s Golden Globe nomination earlier this year, Laurie Collyer’s low-key drama has a forensic, observational quality that belies the writer-director’s background in documentary. Sherry’s daily grind – regular urine tests, squabbles with fellow residents, NA meetings with reformed addict Dean (Danny Trejo, quietly impressive in a role that doesn’t require him to kill anyone for once) – is dispassionately shown from a discreet distance, allowing us to feel both moved and discomfited by the lengths to which she’s prepared to go to realise her idea of happiness. (At one point she performs fellatio to secure a teaching job.)

When Sherry treats her family to an excruciating rendition of Bangles ballad ‘Eternal Flame’, meanwhile, we share every moment of their awkwardness and embarrassment.

As unsettling as her behaviour becomes though, Gyllenhaal’s touching vulnerability ensures we never write her off the way society has done. So much so that, when she contemplates turning an afternoon with Alexis into a full-scale kidnapping, we find ourselves rooting for her to pull back before it’s too late.

A lesser filmmaker might try to resolve this messy situation with a feel-good ending. Collyer, however, concludes on a reserved note of cautious optimism that’s all the more moving for being so studiously understated.

A poignant, grimly authentic portrait of a troubled soul trying to reassemble the shards of her fractured life. Maggie Gyllenhaal's fearless performance places her right at the top of any list of young Hollywood talent.

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.