The untimely murder of indie heroine director and producer Adrienne Shelley was inevitably on my mind as I watched her supporting performance. Waitress is set up to make you love it, and for many reasons, one can. Lush colors, laugh out loud humor and delicious-looking pies are enticing. I also smiled at the wise casting of charming, cranky Andy Griffith and former Felicity favorite, Keri Russell, whose endearing performances will continue to garner award nominations.
But the problem with a film like Waitress is that despite what I assume were its creator’s best intentions, this tale about a poor woman in an abusive relationship is almost entirely devoid of the systemic analysis it could so easily bring to its audience. Instead, in the midst of a steamy extramarital affair, we hardly notice that Jenna has no money and that her husband, Earl, might kill her – or their unborn child – at any time. While I applaud the survivor aesthetic, I didn’t find it particularly believable.
Multiple times throughout the film, I was sure Earl was about to throw Jenna into a wall, but, miraculously, aside from a violent slap or two, he’d end up crying through her appeasing lies. His imperviousness to her obvious pregnancy was mind-blowing, and I ultimately could not be convinced that a woman with such an intemperate husband would risk an entanglement with the doctor coaching her through a secret gestation.
Jenna is refreshingly ambivalent and even hostile about motherhood, so her decision to keep her belligerent partner’s child – conceived because he “got her drunk that one night” – is surprising. Shelley could have made a film about abortion, and perhaps it’s admirable that she opened up another possibility. My mother, who had me shortly before divorcing my father, recently said, "Honey, when I had you, everything just made sense." But that potential reality doesn't make the situation any less problematic for Jenna. When her postpartum bliss and financial assistance from boss and fatherly figure, Old Joe, finally propel her to leave her abuser, are we really to trust that once their daughter is born, Earl will leave them both with any less resistance?
This is a fluffy, engaging end to Shelley's solid cinematic legacy, but it also falls short as the “feminist” film it has been labeled. A lot of fun if you don't take it too seriously, Waitress is a beautiful fairy tale that rarely comes true.