Written by Michael Clawson
Andy Ostroy’s Adrienne is a loving documentary portrait of Adrienne Shelly, the supremely magnetic, instantly recognizable actress and filmmaker who rose to indie stardom in the early ‘90s, but had her life tragically, horrifically cut short when she was murdered at the age of forty in 2006. Ostroy was Shelly’s husband, and is the father of their daughter Sophie, who was a toddler at the time of her mother’s death. Early in Adrienne, Ostroy asks people waiting outside a Broadway theater to see Waitress, the musical based on Shelly’s posthumously released film of the same name, if they are familiar with Adrienne Shelly. Disappointed with the shrugs he gets in response, Adrienne is Ostroy’s bid to make his wife’s creative achievements and her preciousness as a spouse, mother, and friend more widely known.
Ostroy serves as not just director, but also, in a way, as his own subject. He’s very often on-screen, whether to recount the gut-wrenching emotions of the day he found his wife dead in her office, to interview Shelly’s friends, family, and creative collaborators (among them are Keri Russell, Hal Hartley, Paul Rudd, and Sara Bareilles), or to ask his now teen-aged daughter Sophie what she remembers about her mom. His telling of anecdotes sometimes feels a bit performed, and embellished, for dramatic effect, but they come from a place of obviously intense and lasting grief.
Where Adrienne does better is in balancing the tragedy of Shelly’s death with a heartening celebration of her life. Using excerpts from home videos, clips from Shelly’s acting filmography, and footage of her directing Waitress, Ostroy paints a warm and adoring picture of Shelly, capturing the sharp intelligence, feminism, and disarmingly quirky personality that bled into her most iconic characters. As he traces the trajectory of Shelly’s artistic career, from college dropout to independent film darling on magazine covers, Ostroy also charts his own path in coping with loss, which leads to him coming face-to-face with Shelly’s assailant, Diego Pilco, who is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence, at the film’s end. If Ostroy’s feelings become at all more complicated when he hears Pilco describe being a 19 year-old immigrant with no money at the time of the murder, Ostroy doesn’t share those emotional wrinkles. It’s another moment that suffers from Ostroy operating both in front of and behind the camera.From an aesthetic perspective, Adrienne is nothing out of the ordinary. Shelly’s charm, however, radiant in all of the personal and professional contexts that we see it, is too irresistible for the documentary to not be mostly enjoyable. Adrienne is streaming on HBO Max, but unfortunately, not even one of her films is on that service. Sudden Manhattan and I’ll Take You There, two features she directed, aren’t readily available on any VOD or streaming service. I’d like to hope that someone will see Adrienne, take after Ostroy, and further celebrate Shelly’s work by improving access to it.