Cute as a mini-marshmallow, Jenna is morose and more than a little sour on life. But she changes her mood, and those of the diner patrons, by whipping up confections like the nut-filled chocolate custard treat she calls "I Hate My Husband Pie."
OK, it's not the equivalent of turning base metal into gold. But converting self-pity into pastry is a kind of alchemy. The immediate effect of the film written and directed by and costarring the late Shelly is to make you pleasantly pie-eyed.
A tangle of curls and busy fingers, Jenna cooks up recipes and ways to leave her husband when she tests positive for pregnancy.
At Joe's Diner, her sister waitresses, Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Shelly), are Jenna's life support. Becky is the match to Dawn's firecracker. (Shelly's performance has a sparkle and color comparable to that of the young Holly Hunter.)
They can't abide Jenna's husband, the brutish Earl (Jeremy Sisto), who keeps her on a leash so short she can't move. Nor can they stand Old Joe (Andy Griffith - yes, that Andy Griffith), the diner's cranky owner.
In a film iced in the pastel hues of cupcake frosting, Becky and Cheryl sweeten Jenna's bitter lot, which includes an inappropriate crush on her married gynecologist (Nathan Fillion). Like Jenna's pies, the plot has at least two ingredients too many, but they serve to distract our heroine from the anxieties accompanying maternity and a bad marriage.
I've withheld until now the circumstances of Shelly's death. The gifted, 40-year-old actress and director (and married mother of 3-year-old Sophie) was murdered in New York, allegedly by a construction worker, in November. She didn't know that the letter from the Sundance Film Festival notifying her that Waitress had been accepted was in the mail - and that her big close-up was at hand.
Shelly left her daughter - and her audience - a wonderful gift, this movie about the transforming effects of motherhood. Waitress shows how, in giving birth, a woman gives birth to herself - as artist and mother.
Waitress *** (out of four stars)
Written and directed by Adrienne Shelly. With Keri Russell, Cheryl Hines, Jeremy Sisto, Andy Griffith and Nathan Fillion. Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (sex, profanity)
Playing at: Showcase at Ritz Center
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog on the movies, Flickgrrl, at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl.