Second Union

Second Union

REVIEW: Adrienne (2021)

Adrienne, 2021 (Andy Ostroy) HBO Documentary Films

“A barely imaginable horror lies just below the surface of our normal life and threatens to break through at any time. The inescapable, unbelievable truth about our lives today is that at any given moment each and every one of us could become a broken and confused animal scratching at the surface of the earth for some small sign of life.*”

I had to go back, in my mind, about a million years or to the year 1998. I was dating my wife. What I mean when I say that is that I was dating the girl who would become my wife. She did become my wife two years later. She had a small basement apartment in Astoria, New York. I had a VHS tape of Trust, Hal Hartley’s second movie in his Long Island trilogy, starring relative unknowns (at the time) Martin Donovan and Adrienne Shelly.

I played the movie for her and she understood the language immediately. It was the language of the young, the vital, the angry. It was, and still is, my favorite Hal Hartley movie and my favorite Adrienne Shelly movie. I didn’t know Donovan all that well, but I knew Shelly. She was an indie darling going on ten years since her first movie, The Unbelievable Truth (also made by Hartley) was released.

She usually appeared on magazine covers to underscore the importance of independent cinema at a time when it was ready to explode. She was one of the faces of indie film; right up there with Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Parker Posey, Jim Jarmusch, and Robert Rodriguez. Shelly appeared in only those two Hartley movies before going to Hollywood and starring in a bunch of “quirky” trendy movies like Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me and Sleep With Me.

She found it difficult finding work, let alone interesting work, so she started writing plays and making short films. She got married, had a baby, and started writing Waitress as a way of coping with her impending motherhood and the loss of her youth. A year later, Shelly directed her screenplay starring herself, Keri Russell, Cheryl Hines, Nathan Fillion, Jeremy Sisto, and Andy Griffith. A year later, she was dead.

Her widower, Andy Ostroy’s new documentary, Adrienne (available on HBOMax), seeks not to shed light on her murder, but rather to provide a maudlin epitaph and shiva for Shelly. I don’t know that her friends and family needed this. Perhaps Ostroy needed closure for himself and their daughter, Sophie. He even visits his wife’s murderer (an undocumented day laborer) in prison to tell him about everything he took away from their family.

Adrienne does deal with her murder, but Ostroy wants to stay away from the grim details. The killer seems genuinely sorry, but how does this help? There is grief, and there is suffering, and it goes on way too long. What I wanted to see was more of those early stories with Robert John Burke and Hartley. This was what mattered to me most about Shelly. Donovan is also missing from the movie, and to me, (if we factor in 1992’s Simple Men) Burke, Shelly, and Donovan represented a wonderful trio for Hartley. They were his finest muses.

The tragedy of all of this is how poised for success Shelly was. She should’ve been a big star. She was on the verge of stardom as an actress, as a filmmaker, as a woman, and as a mother. I don’t know that I could recommend Adrienne as a document of her life or her process. It will, most likely, satisfy her loved ones, but a lot of it does come across as unforgivably exploitative. Ostroy is not a filmmaker (in the classic sense of the word) so he does not cut the movie together with style.

Rather, Adrienne feels more like a home movie than a documentary; a memoir, a remembrance. Ostroy’s heart is in the right place, but this wasn’t the way to go about it. Jump forward to November 2, 2006. A day after Shelly’s death. My wife was a little over seven months pregnant with our daughter. I found my VHS tape of Trust. We watched it together and tears welled up in my eyes. It’s funny how these things inextricably tie you together with history.

*One of the more difficult (and heartbreaking) quotes I’ve had to transcribe.

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