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The last picture show 

Even before her murder Adrienne Shelly’s career didn’t have many happy endings, but Tara Thorne finds pure joy awaits in Waitress.

In the 2002 documentary Searching for Debra Winger—in which Rosanna Arquette explores the life of the working Hollywood actress via famous contemporaries like Holly Hunter, Jane Fonda, Frances McDormand and Diane Lane—Adrienne Shelly has one short but revealing scene. She tells a story of how her agent has gotten her an audition, and he's told her that she must be "fuckable."

"I get in the room," she tells the table, which includes Ally Sheedy and Martha Plimpton, "and there's these two great women and they're so great and so nice and so wonderful. And I'm like, they don't care if I'm fuckable." And then the third person enters, a man. "He walks in and he looks right at my tits. Not even in my face. And I see by the look on his face that he's not appreciating the sassiness"—she punctuates the word with some manic jazz hands—"of them. Like the whole sexy, sassy thing was not his thing. And I saw in his face that there was no way I was gonna get this part. Because he didn't like my tits."

Shelly was always at odds with her role in the film industry, frustrated that she couldn't get decent work, despite pre-dating Parker Posey as Hal Hartley's Indie It Girl and being crowned Sassy's favourite actor. She had to write her biggest roles and then direct them herself, in I'll Take You There (1999) and The Shadows of Bob and Zelda (2000). She cast herself aptly in her final film, Waitress, opening this week, as the shy girl who can't see her own beauty, isn't comfortable in her own skin, doesn't believe she's lovable.

The bittersweet, down-home comedy, a Sundance favourite, stars Keri Russell (Felicity) as Jenna, a woman stuck in a terrible, stifling marriage to lunkheaded, abusive husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto). She works at a local diner, where she is a pie savant, creating a new dessert every day in a bevy of immaculately photographed food-porn shots. Her fellow waitresses are played by Cheryl Hines of Curb Your Enthusiasm, as a woman stuck in a stifling marriage of another kind—her husband is an invalid—and Shelly, sporting dorky glasses and a ponytail, that tired movie trick employed to make pretty girls "ugly." (Has Tina Fey not changed this yet?)

Jenna will only sleep with Earl when she's drunk, and the one time he manages to trick her results in pregnancy. She does not want the baby. (Shelly wrote the film when she was pregnant with her daughter and feeling guilty about not being stoked.) Abortion, in this small, unnamed southern US town, does not even present itself as an option and wouldn't work with the movie's breezy, near-sitcom tone anyway. So Jenna hauls herself reluctantly off to the OB/GYN, the charmingly nervous Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). A few appointments later she's kissing him in the exam room, and they slip into an ill-advised, delirious affair.

While Waitress can feel like a trifle if you give it a passive viewing, once you dig deeper you'll find a film about defining yourself on your own terms, about independence. A lesser movie would have Jenna and Dr. Pomatter and her baby headed out on the only road in town, off to a better life, while the pathetic Earl rots in jail for all those unanswered backhands. But Shelly, who made a very American movie, never got many happy endings in her career, and so Waitress concludes with her own version of a Hollywood resolution: Jenna doesn't leave town, but she manages to shake off the bad parts of her life, focusing on her career and her daughter, who becomes the love of her life. Shelly doesn't let her indie rep or career dissatisfaction—mirrored by all three women in the film—dictate or dismantle the pure, joyous sentiment of Waitress, letting its heart shine unabashedly, proudly even, in the end.

Adrienne Shelly acted in 24 films, made four guest appearances on network television and wrote and directed six movies—three shorts, three features. Shelly was 40 when she was murdered last November in New York. She was born in Queens. She died in Manhattan.

Waitress opens May 25. See Movie Times for more info.

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