I first came across Adrienne Shelly as an actress. Back in the early 1990s, she starred in two of the best independent films to ever come out of the US — writer-director Hal Hartley's The Unbelievable Truth and Trust. In both films, she plays sweet, pretty middle-America kinda gals. Shelly fell off my radar, but lo and behold she also became a writer-director, and here's her third film — a warm, sweet slice-of-life tale also set firmly in middle America.

Jenna (Russell) is a waitress-cum-piemaker at Joe’s Pie Shop somewhere in America’s deep south. Her pies may be sweet, but her life certainly isn't — Jenna is unhappily married to Earl (Sisto), a jealous, clingy redneck. Jenna is happiest when hanging out with her waitress pals — Becky (Hines) and Dawn (Shelly) — or in the kitchen baking her incredibly popular pies, which arre named for whatever is on her mind at the time: Kick In The Pants Pie, I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie, I Hate My Husband Pie, Earl Murders Me Because I’m Having an Affair Pie. Those pie names reveal a few plot points: Jenna finds herself pregnant to Earl; Jenna then finds herself having an affair with her new obstetrician, the handsome Dr Pomatter (Fillion). All Jenna wants to do is win the $25,000 on offer in a baking competition, leave Earl and start a new life.

This is Keri Russell's first big-screen starring role (she's best known as the titular character in TV's Felicity, or for her turn in MI:III) and she shows an incredible presence and versatility. She makes Jenna so engaging and irresistible that you find your mood changes as hers does, and you can't help but fall a little in love with her. And Russell's costars, too, although all best known for their TV work — Hines in Curb Your Enthusiasm, FIllion in Firefly, Sisto in Six Feet Under — bring depth as well as deft comic touches to their characters.

The greatest joy of this film is Shelly’s love for all her characters — yes, even the nasty ones. We follow them through their ups and and downs, and come to know them and care for them as much as she does. But the overall joy of this work comes tinged with an element of tragedy. During post-production, Shelly was murdered in her Manhattan apartment, making this her final film. Waitress was completed and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It was a hit with the audiences there, making it a fitting epitaph to a talented filmmaker on both sides of the camera. But the film utlimately belongs to Russell, and if the Hollywood majors aren't currently beating a path to her door, then I'll eat my hat — baked into a delicious pie, of course.

SECOND OPINION | Hemanth Kissoon****
This year we can’t seem to get away from food at the movies. We have Pixar’s Paris-set Ratatouille and Catherine Zeta Jones/Aaron Eckhart in chef-romantic-comedy-drama No Reservations. Waitress joins them as one of those summer indie highlights like Garden State, Little Miss Sunshine and Napoleon Dynamite. Waitress may appear on its glazed surface to be a mass processed bitter-sweet comedy, but there is more going on than its typical genre fare. Russell’s Jenna is a gifted pie-maker (both savoury and sweet, a reference perhaps to the flavour of the film), whose self-worth and joie de vivre have taken a pummelling by her abusive, possessive, jealous and self-obsessed husband. A good-looking couple, you can imagine were high-school sweethearts; but once married he changed and trapped her through fear. The film is an astute look at the way men can treat women and how after the suffragettes and feminism the lot of a women can still be unjust and trying.

Happiness is snatched from the jaws of despair by the new doctor in town, Pomatter (Fillion, who is proving to be a charming leading man — see Firefly/Serenity and Slither). Jenna is gradually galvanised by all the changes going on in her life. Dr. Pomatter has flaws, like all the men in the film. This does not seem to be a man-hating movie however, more a wake-up call for both genders; as well as a celebration of pies. The cast and writing were believable and juicy. Waitress had the tone spot on; juggling drama and comedy ain’t easy. (By the way, make sure you’re not hungry before you hit the cinema.)

Official US Site
Official UK Site
Waitress at IMDb
Interview with co-star Nathan Fillion

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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