An Introduction to Indie Film Darling Adrienne Shelly

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Waitress, 2007
Waitress, 2007(Film still)

As a new HBO documentary about Shelly’s output is released, Josh Slater-Williams spotlights five of her key films

“I was going for a tone where you can find what’s funny in what’s painful, which has always been my kind of strategy anyway in life,” says Adrienne Shelly through archive footage in a new HBO documentary, Adrienne (2021).

An actor, screenwriter and director, Shelly broke through in the early 90s as the luminous lead of indie maverick Hal Hartley’s first two features: The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1990), which were key early texts in a wave of independent films that helped define the stylistic directions of a considerable number of American movies that decade.

Although Shelly never really crossed over as a star of studio movies (though had supporting roles in a few), she was something of a perennial ‘It’ girl in late 90s American independent cinema, getting magazine shoots the documentary suggests she wasn’t entirely comfortable with. Transitioning to writing and directing, her most well-known film is likely Waitress (2007), which was a Sundance darling and went on to be adapted into a Broadway and West End London show in recent years.

Writing and directing Waitress, as well as co-starring, she tragically never got to see the love for the story she created. Shelly was found dead in a New York apartment she used as an office on November 1 2006, the day after a Halloween party for her two-year-old daughter, Sophie. Initially reported as a suspected suicide, the following days’ investigation revealed it was murder made to look self-inflicted. A young construction worker who’d attempted to rob the apartment confessed to the crime. Just a few days after Shelly’s murder came a letter saying that Waitress had been accepted into the next edition of Sundance.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Shelly’s husband, Andy Ostroy, established the New York-based Adrienne Shelly Foundation, which awards scholarships, funds and grants in order to support the efforts of women in filmmaking. He’s also the director of this new documentary, made as a testament to his love’s life, but also to preserve and redefine her cultural legacy (early in the film, none of the people queuing to see a sold-out Broadway performance of Waitress seem to know who Shelly was, despite the show’s popularity and her name on the marquee). The documentary features contributions from various friends and collaborators, including Hal Hartley, Paul Rudd and Keri Russell, among others.

In light of the documentary’s aim to (re)introduce the world to Shelly’s output, here are five key films of hers you should seek out – three she wrote and directed, and two in which she starred.

The Unbelievable Truth, 1989

Hal Hartley’s mischievous and witty debut comedy explores the disillusionment of the young generation in corporate America. Shelly is Audrey, a young woman obsessed with the threat of nuclear annihilation, who takes a shine to a mechanic now working for her grouchy father. Only, it turns out the ex-con may possibly have murdered the father of his high-school girlfriend.

Trust, 1990

Trust was both Hartley and Shelly’s second feature, and according to interview footage included in Adrienne, the actor found the reunion a more challenging experience, seemingly due to Audrey in The Unbelievable Truth being a not entirely inaccurate reflection of her own personality. In the tragicomic Trust, Shelly is high-school dropout Maria, whose unplanned pregnancy seemingly provokes her father’s fatal heart attack. Kicked out of her home, she connects with misanthrope tech wiz Matthew (Martin Donovan), their unusual, transformative relationship becoming one based on mutual trust and respect in a deceitful world, rather than a traditional romance.

Sudden Manhattan, 1996

Although Adrienne briefly showcases a few highlights, it’s implied that Shelly herself thought a lot of her post-Trust acting gigs in the 90s to be subpar. So, jump ahead to her debut feature as writer-director: an urban fantasy in which she also leads as a Manhattan resident possibly hallucinating witnessing local murders.

I’ll Take You There, 1999

For her writing/directing follow-ups to Sudden Manhattan, Shelly transitioned to onscreen supporting roles only. Ally Sheedy is a force of nature as a woman forcing a recently divorced grouch to move on with his life, after his needlessly cruel words on a date trigger her own psychotic break.

Waitress, 2007 (lead image)

The wonderful Keri Russell is Jenna, a pregnant, unhappily married waitress, with a gift for pie-making, living in the Deep South. An unexpected romantic relationship with her new doctor offers a last hope of satisfaction in life. Shelly’s final film as multi-hyphenate is her strongest, beautifully balancing the funny and the sad with sweetness that never tips over into saccharine.

Adrienne is on Sky Documentaries and NOW TV from 9 December 2021.