An Introduction to Independent Film Darling Adrienne Shelly

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

An actress, screenwriter and director, Shelly broke through in the early ’90s as the luminous leader of independent maverick Hal Hartley’s first two feature films: The unbelievable truth (1989) and Confidence (1990), which were the first key texts in a wave of independent films that helped define the stylistic directions of a considerable number of American films during this decade.

While Shelly never really came through as a star in studio films (although she did have supporting roles in a few), she was somewhat of a perennial ‘It’ girl in independent filmmaking. American actress from the late 90s, the magazine’s filming of the documentary suggests that she was not entirely comfortable with it. In transition to writing and directing, her best-known film is probably Waitress (2007), which was a Sundance darling and has subsequently been adapted into a Broadway and West End London show in recent years.

Writing and directing Waitress, besides being a co-star, 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. Originally reported as a suspected suicide, the investigation over the following days revealed that it was a murder that appeared to be self-inflicted. A young construction worker who tried to rob the apartment confessed to the crime. Just days after Shelly’s murder came a letter saying that Waitress had been accepted in 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 to support the efforts of women in filmmaking. He is also the director of this new documentary, made to bear witness to his love life, but also to preserve and redefine his cultural heritage (at the start of the film, none of the people lining up to attend a sold-out performance of Broadway 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 goal of (re) introducing the world to Shelly’s production, here are five key films of hers you should be looking for – three that she wrote and directed, and two that she starred in.

The unbelievable truth, 1989

Hal Hartley’s mischievous and witty debut comedy explores the disillusionment of the younger generation in American business. Shelly is Audrey, a young woman obsessed with the threat of nuclear annihilation, who loves a mechanic now working for her cranky father. Only it turns out that the ex-convict may have murdered his high school girlfriend’s father.

Confidence, 1990

Confidence was both Hartley and Shelly’s second feature film, and according to the interview footage included in Adrienne, the actor found the reunion to be a more difficult experience, apparently because of Audrey in The unbelievable truth being a not entirely inaccurate reflection of his own personality. In the tragicomic Confidence, Shelly is Maria who dropped out of high school, whose unplanned pregnancy apparently causes her father’s fatal heart attack. Evicted from her home, she connects with misanthropic tech wizard Matthew (Martin Donovan), their unusual and transformative relationship becoming one based on mutual trust and respect in a deceptive world, rather than traditional romance.

Manhattan suddenly, 1996

Although Adrienne briefly presents some highlights, this implies that Shelly herself has given much thought to her post-Confidence acting gigs in the 90s are below par. So, embark on her feature debut as a writer-director: an urban fantasy she also leads as a Manhattan resident, perhaps mind-blowing witnessing local murders.

I’ll take you there, 1999

For his writing / production follow-ups Manhattan suddenly, Shelly switched to supporting roles on screen only. Ally Sheedy is a force of nature as a woman forcing a recently divorced grumpy man to get on with his life, after her needlessly cruel words on a date sparked her own psychotic breakup.

Waitress, 2007 (main image)

The wonderful Keri Russell is Jenna, a pregnant and hapless waitress with a knack for pie making, living in the Deep South. An unexpected romantic relationship with her new doctor offers one last hope of life satisfaction. Shelly’s latest film as a multi-hyphen is her strongest, beautifully balancing the funny and the sad with a sweetness that never rocks into saccharin.

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