Near the midpoint of writer/director Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress, its title character, Jenna (Keri Russell), is about to change. Stuck in a marriage with a possessive lout and facing a pregnancy that makes her feel even more desperate and trapped, Jenna finds her only pleasure in making 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 is on the verge of figuring something out. In a montage set to Cake’s “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” a puzzled expression on Jenna’s face gradually shifts to a megawatt smile she carries everywhere she goes. With a brilliant bit of visual shorthand, Shelly conveys not just that Jenna is now happy, but that she got that way only after figuring out what happiness actually feels like.
It’s important, I think, to start there, and not with the back-story that cloaks most everything else you may have read about Waitress. Yes, Shelly died in a tragic, highly publicized incident last fall. The film’s premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was emotional, and there’s an inevitable desire to look at the film through the lens of the filmmaker’s passing. But Waitress doesn’t need a pat on the head simply because its creator was murdered—it’s too beautifully crafted to be diminished in that way.
Waitress begins with the kind of quirky setting that might easily become oppressive without the proper touch. Jenna shares her miseries with her two co-workers, Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Shelly herself). The diner’s curmudgeonly owner, Joe (Andy Griffith), seems to delight in tormenting his staff with his 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. Jenna pours her frustrations into her pies, creating desserts named for her odd life predicaments (“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.
That’s because Shelly somehow negotiates a tricky tightrope walk between the fairy-tale gloss she casts over the story and the fundamental dissatisfaction in her characters’ lives. Even on the rare occasions when Shelly stumbles, the good will Waitress builds up carries it through. And considering that the film ultimately plays out as a love letter to relationships between mothers and daughters, Shelly hits some effectively tart notes, as when Jenna composes bitter letters to her unborn child that begin, “Dear damn baby.”
And, naturally, the motherhood angle brings things back around to Shelly’s death, and the fact that she left behind her own young daughter. If you knew that fact, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by Waitress’ closing moments—but I’d also argue that they’re pretty moving regardless of real-world events.