Adrienne Shelly on the sand by the water with her daughter Sophie Ostroy. by the Forward

In a heartbreaking and inspiring new film, the soul of an actress — and the lives she touched — lives on

Courtesy of Warner Media

In equal measure a valentine to his late wife, a tribute to her as an actor, director and writer on the cusp of a serious career, and an exploration of personal grief, “Adrienne” is a skillful, almost seamless film and a notable debut for director Andy Ostroy. The 90-minute documentary could easily have slipped into an uncomfortable bit of exhibitionism — after all, Adrienne Shelly, the film’s subject, was the victim of a grisly and much-publicized murder — but Ostroy recounts the horrors with restraint and dignity.

Shelly was born Adrienne Levine. She was a pretty, ambitious young girl, awash in creative energy, the one who inevitably starred in all school productions. To her mother’s chagrin, the Queens native dropped out of college at the end of her junior year and launched a career as an actor in New York City. Within short order she was cast in two of Hal Hartley’s indies — “The Unbelievable Truth” and “Trust” — and quickly garnered a cult following.

Less memorable appearances followed before Shelly branched out into writing and directing. Her posthumous 2007 film, “Waitress,” was a dramedy with charm to spare, reminiscent of “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” the 1970s Scorsese film (later adapted into a TV series) set in a roadside diner with lots of colorful characters but with an evident feminist vision. The movie, a Sundance favorite, morphed into a smash Tony-nominated musical, “Waitress,” with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles.

Early on in the film, Ostroy, who serves as its narrator and key player, asks ticketholders at the Broadway Theater if they recognize the name Adrienne Shelly displayed on the marquee. Nobody has a clue. The movie was created, at least in part, to fill the gap. Interweaving old home movies, clips from Shelly’s various films and interviews with her colleagues, childhood friends and family members (most poignantly her mother and daughter), the non-linear narrative traces her artistic and personal evolution, her untimely demise, and the anguish that followed in its wake. It also grapples with her family’s partial reconciliation to the fact of her death. “Never closure,” Ostroy stresses.

The crime drama forms a subplot. Ostroy discovered his wife’s body hanging in her office bathroom. The police initially said it was suicide, but Ostroy insisted her professional prospects were bright, she was happily married to him, and she adored their two-year-old daughter Sophie. Thanks to his persistence, a dogged detective and a forensic expert, Ostroy was vindicated and an arrest was made. Dust-covered shoeprints found at the scene and later in the apartment below, which was undergoing construction at the time, led to the arrest of Diego Pillco, a worker on the site who broke into her apartment office to rob it. Shelly caught him in the act. When she threatened to call the police he panicked and strangled her, and after an intense struggle, he murdered her and tried to make the death look like she had killed herself.

Over the years, Ostroy was haunted by the murder and, by extension, her murderer. And, despite feeling nauseated, he was driven to speak with him. He requested a meeting and, to his amazement, Pillco wrote back agreeing to meet, admitting to feelings of remorse, shame and guilt. In the film’s most powerful scene, Ostroy quietly confronts Pillco in an upstate prison conference room. There are no fireworks. He simply lays out photos of Shelly, some with him, others with Sophie, and lets Pillco know what he stole from them.

Throughout the film, which also tracks Sophie’s evolution from childhood to teenager, Ostroy speaks with his daughter about Adrienne and how her absence has become a presence. The conversations that form a lifelong bond between father and daughter grow incrementally more mindful and sophisticated. At 17, Sophie is a thoughtful, articulate young woman who acknowledges she has never really known her mother short of what she has gleaned from home movies and other people’s recollections. Animated snippets of a father and child talking about Mommy’s death and the fact that she’s not coming home again appear on the screen intermittently. As a thematic motif they are surprisingly effective.

Grief was a defining theme in Adrienne Shelly’s life too. As a youngster, she lost her own father; she later took his moniker, Shelly, as her last name. She was arguably ahead of her time, wanting to have it all — marriage, a family and a career. After a series of go-nowhere romances, she joined a dating site, which was how she met Ostroy.

Photos capturing Shelly and Ostroy’s trip to Paris and his proposal there are lovely. So too is their traditional Jewish wedding where she touchingly vows to love Ostroy’s three children from his previous marriages as if they were her own. Equally affecting is the way her stepchildren later step up to the plate for Sophie, when Shelly is killed. But perhaps the most moving, ongoing, and unexpected relationship here is between Ostroy and Adrienne’s mom. In one scene they visit the high school Adrienne attended and together they place their held hands over a memorial plaque that bears her name.

In a heartbreaking and inspiring new film, the soul of an actress — and the lives she touched — lives on

A core element here is that Adrienne never got to see her own success realized, though others did. For both Ostroy and her mother, the trip to Sundance to see their loved one’s film, “Waitress,” applauded and celebrated was an excruciating and necessary trip. In a symbolic gesture, Ostroy released some of her ashes on the streets of Sundance. It was his way of saying she was here. In a darkly comic moment he also scatters her ashes in the theater where her movie made its debut, some of the ashes floating onto Harvey Weinstein’s shoulder. At the time, Weinstein had not yet fallen from grace; he was the respected head of Miramax, which produced “Waitress.” No doubt Adrienne would have loved the irony.

Pervasive throughout this film is Shelly’s keen sense of absurdity. She was also a humanist and willing to acknowledge that struggling is a universal experience. In one clip she talks about how as a petite, blonde-haired female she was not taken all that seriously in the ‘90s. “It’s harder for women,” she notes before adding, “but it’s hard for everybody.” After her death, Ostroy set up The Adrienne Shelly Foundation, a not-for-profit operation dedicated to women filmmakers.

Though this is a tragic story, in the end it is one of the most life-affirming and optimistic films out there. One leaves the film feeling emboldened.

In a heartbreaking and inspiring new film, the soul of an actress — and the lives she touched — lives on

Simi Horwitz won a 2018 Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York for her Forward story, “Ruchie Freier: Hasidic Judge, American Trailblazer.” She received two 2020 New York Press Club Awards, three 2021 National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, and a 2021 Simon Rockower Award. She came in first place at the 2021 SoCal Journalism Awards (given by the LA Press Club) for her Forward story, “Gloria Steinem Is Having a Moment.”

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In a heartbreaking and inspiring new film, the soul of an actress — and the lives she touched — lives on

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