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Arts & Culture

Waitress

Adrienne Shelly won acclaim as an actress in Hal Hartleys indie films

The Unbelievable Truth and

Trust. The petite actress with the sassy red hair then decided to focus on writing and directing shorts, and then quickly moved on to features. But in November of last year, before her second feature

Waitress (opening in select theaters May 11) could be released, she was murdered.

Adrienne Shelly (far right) writes, directs and co-stars in Waitress (Fox)

Adrienne Shellys death would be considered tragic under any circumstance but the fact that she was killed just before the release of her second featurewhich showed marked improvement over her debutand by a construction worker who was upset by her complaints about his work making too much noise, just make her death all the more senseless and sad. But Waitress will remain behind to remind us of her bright talent.

Waitress focuses on a young woman named Jenna (Keri Russell of TVs Felicity ) whos trapped in an abusive marriage. She works at a local diner with two friends Becky (Cheryl Hines, the wife on Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly). The three women form an informal support group for each other. But Becky and Dawn confess that even though their lives are far from perfect, they would never trade places with Jenna whos cursed with Earl (Jeremy Sisto), a cruel and suffocatingly jealous husband. Jennas only pleasure seems to come from baking the daily pie specials at the diner where she works.

Keri Russell in Waitress (Fox)

Then Jenna discovers that shes pregnant. She doesnt want an abortion but she also doesnt want to bear Earls child. Shes been secretly saving money for an escape and she fears that having a child will forever shut the doors on her dream of fleeing. She goes to her doctor only to discover that the old doc has gone into semi-retirement and a young city doctor named Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion of TVs Firefly) has taken her place. Jenna and the new doc take a liking to each other and Jenna allows herself to dream once again of escape.

Shelly turns Waitress into a bittersweet comedy about a woman finding the courage and strength to take responsibility for her own life and to make a change. As with the upcoming Knocked Up, Waitress serves up a story in which an unwanted pregnancy ends up changing the lives of the characters. In Jenna's case, pregnancy begins as something that seems to trap and limit her but turns into something unexpectedly liberating. Although Jenna doesn't initially realize it, her pie making is the source of her strength. Not only is it a skill, it's something that links her to the memories of her mother and something that she can pass on to her child. The pies also provide for humorous commentary on her life as she gives her pies exotic names or names that reflect her mood ("Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie").

There are some formula elements at play here. Andy Griffiths stops by to play a wealthy old codger (I'm sure you know where this is heading) who is way too soft and sympathetic from the get-go. Yet Shelly manages to deliver some tasty surprises along the way. Theres a hint of a fairy tale ending but were willing to buy into it because Shelly has made us care about the characters and we feel Jenna has earned the right to improve her life.

Shelly pens dialogue that has both sass and a down home country matter of factness. She conveys the camaraderie amongst the women with warmth and humor. She also finds some genuine menace in Earls abusive hubby. Although he continually professes his love for Jenna and often makes his threats in the softest tones, Earl is a disturbing oppressive spouse whose methods of oppression and abuse are particularly cruel and insidious.

Nathan Fillion's doctor takes an interest in Keri Russell's Waitress

Russell doesnt quite sparkle as brightly as she should as Jenna. She (along with Fillion) has a bit of a sitcomy polish to the character that keeps Jenna from becoming fully fleshed out. Shes still appealing, though, and finds genuine strength in Jenna in the final scenes. Yet the film could have benefited from someone with a little more freshness. Any of the actresses Hal Hartley has employed over the yearsShelly herself, Parker Posey, Edie Falcowould have the quirkiness to make the role more inventive. Hines and Shelly fare better as does Eddie Jemison as a lovesick suitor pursuing Dawn.

Waitress (rated PG-13) is not a great film but it is a sweet, smart and promising work from someone who might have matured into a filmmaker of note. And just a note: Shelly's husband, Andy Ostroy, has decided to honor his wife's memory by creating www.adrienneshellyfoundation.org, a nonprofit foundation that will benefit female filmmakers. That is a fitting tribute to Shelly's memory.

Companion viewing: The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, Alice Doesnt Live Here Anymore