I remember seeing Waitress – the movie – when it first came out and being moved to tears. With its unique feminist perspective and its focus on the power of female friendship, it was so original and felt so authentic. I’ve probably seen it half a dozen times since and, each time, was fascinated by Adrienne Shelly, who is not only riveting in the role of the shy but strong Dawn but who is also the film’s brilliant writer and director.
Sadly, though, Shelly never got to revel in the success of Waitress because she was murdered before the film was even picked up by Sundance, never mind being later turned into a Tony Award-nominated Broadway musical.
Adrienne is Andy Ostroy’s tribute to the beloved filmmaker – who happens to be his late wife – and his effort to keep her memory and important contributions to the industry alive.
For so many reasons, it’s a must-see.
The documentary starts with family video from Halloween 2006, the day before Shelly was killed, and her joy and her love for her two year old daughter, Sophie, are palpable. “Every horrible day in history has a much happier day before it,” says Ostroy in a voiceover. “I went to bed that night the luckiest guy alive. By the next night, I was living the worst nightmare imaginable.”
Ostroy was the one who found Shelly hanging in the bathroom of the apartment she used as her office and, although her death was originally deemed a suicide, he knew that couldn’t be true and he pushed for an investigation until a suspect was actually found and confessed to the murder.
I have to admit I was a little concerned this was going to turn into Ostroy’s story – and, of course, it is his and Sophie’s story that makes this tragedy even more heartbreaking – but I was wrong. His film honors Shelly in a way that is so personal and loving, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else making it.
In fact, it’s Sophie you won’t be able to get out of your mind. Shelly had called Waitress “a love letter to my baby,” and she even featured the toddler in the movie, memorably skipping down the road in her frilly yellow dress with Keri Russell at the end. In Adrienne, Russell talks about the scene and tells the now-15 year old, “You wouldn’t let your mom out of your sight.” Keep a box of tissues nearby.
The film features clips from Shelly’s films, interviews, behind the scenes footage, never-before-seen home movies, diary entries, personal letters, and memories and insights about her from friends, family and celebrities (including Paul Rudd and Sara Bareilles) who were devastated by her loss.
The film also has a fascinating kind of 20/20 aspect to it as it follows Ostroy’s mission to find out why Shelly was killed. These scenes are intercut with the others in order to keep Shelly always present in the audience’s mind as a wife/mother/filmmaker/friend/daughter rather than as “the victim.” When Ostroy finally meets with the killer and shows him photos of her with the people who loved her – and those people without her – it’s powerful and sobering.
Adrienne Shelly’s death at the age of 40 was a senseless tragedy and, to Ostroy’s credit, he doesn’t attempt to find some hidden meaning in it or spew platitudes about it. He and Sophie just try to live their lives, with the understanding that there really is no such thing as closure or healing when it comes to loss, and that grief is just part of who they are now. This honesty does justice to Shelly’s own tenet.
Early in the film, Ostroy asks theatergoers waiting on line for Waitress, the musical, if they’ve ever heard of Adrienne Shelly. Despite the fact that her name is prominent on the marquee, none of them have. This movie, along with the foundation Ostroy created in Shelly’s name to support women filmmakers, will go a long way toward changing that.