It only took Broadway a century, but the first musical with an all-women creative team is finally debuting at the end of this month in New York. The musical, Waitress, features a female director, choreographer, book writer and song writer (Sara Bareilles, switching from chart-topping hits to musical theater). Yet the production’s feminist roots go back even further, to the musical’s source material: a 2007 film of the same name, also written and directed by a woman. And if you can’t make it to Manhattan to support the musical, Waitress the movie is definitely worth a watch.
The film follows Jenna Hunterson (Keri Russell), a poor waitress in the Deep South. Married to a loathsome, abusive husband, Jenna’s unexpected pregnancy derails her plans to run away. She decides to keep the baby—2007, the year when Knocked Up and Juno were also released, was apparently a banner year for fictional women forgetting that abortion is a thing—then finds herself indulging in an affair with her married OB-GYN, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion, fresh out of Firefly).
Jenna’s true passion is pie-making, and the film is accordingly more than a bit whimsical, toeing the razor-thin line between comedy and tragedy. (Jenna tends to dream up pie recipes that reflect her mood, such as “I Can’t Have No Affair Because It’s Wrong And I Don’t Want Earl To Kill Me Pie,” which consists of “vanilla custard with banana—hold the banana.”) But it’s also deeply feminist, often in unexpected and subversive ways.
Waitress was written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, who also plays one of Jenna’s fellow waitress friends. The film passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, as the waitresses frequently gather to gossip about their problems and yearnings. These strong female friendships are the lifeline that keeps Jenna alive (if not exactly happy), and their support of one another is unconditional.
Furthermore, these women are afforded sexual agency and carnal desires; they articulate what they want in their sex lives and their partners, and pursue those goals. Perhaps most importantly, they are not punished for their sexuality. Jenna’s affair is viewed in a positive light, as a chance for Jenna to escape her husband’s stifling grasp and find her independence again. “I was addicted to saying things and having them matter to someone,” she says of her affair—an addiction she refuses to give up, for anybody. Don’t worry: While Dr. Pomatter is delightful, this is not a film about a woman finding her Prince Charming.
As for that husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto) might just be one of the most devastatingly accurate portrayals of abuse in cinematic history. Sometimes, he appears merely, if disgustingly, needy, as he nags Jenna to tell him how much she loves him. At other times, Earl is outright horrifying, hitting Jenna, sexually assaulting her and throwing chairs across crowded rooms in order to humiliate and terrify her. When she says she’s too tired for sex, his response—“What makes you think you have that right?”—is shocking, yet all too real. Jenna’s struggle to liberate herself from him, from her fear of being alone, is both inspiring and relatable.
Still, the movie is far from perfect. One of the characters’ romances with a semi-stalker is ick-inducing. There are absolutely zero people of color. Yet the world that Waitress inhabits remains entrancing and challenging, reckoning with themes of poverty, lust and motherhood in a way that somehow remains both rose-tinted and real. Waitress presents a unique portrait of what it means to be a modern, independent woman, a concept that far too few films try to grapple with.
Sadly, Waitress was Shelly’s last film, as she was murdered shortly after the film’s completion. However, Shelly’s widowed husband now runs the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, which aims to support women filmmakers in a hostile industry. Now, with Waitress the musical’s upcoming debut on the Broadway stage, Shelly’s creation will endure and evolve—but her original vision still deserves to be treasured.
Waitress is currently available to stream on HBO Go.