Sundance Report: ‘Waitress’ Has Successful Debut, Sadly

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Shelly at a New York reading of in 2004. Photo: Getty Images

Anticipated screenings at the Sundance Film Festival are always special, but Sunday afternoon's premiere of Waitress was more special than usual. It was the directed by Adrienne Shelly, the veteran indie-film actress who was murdered in November in her Greenwich Village apartment. "This is not a wake," festival director Geoffrey Gilmore told the capacity crowd at the Eccles Center, more than 1,000 people. "We picked the film before her death, although she did not know it. Needless to say, Adrienne Shelly is not here in person, but she is here in spirit."

Her spirit must have been pleased. Waitress, a likable drama of heartache starring Keri Russell as Jenna, a pregnant, unhappily married waitress in the Deep South who gets a shot at a better life via an unexpected relationship with the new doctor in town, is perhaps the festival's most audience-friendly film, and the audience was very friendly back to it. Viewers laughed at the homespun humor — Andy Griffith has a supporting role as one of Jenna's customers — and hissed at the villainy of Jenna's boorish husband; they swooned at the arrival of Jenna's baby. Post-screening chatter in the Eccles lobby suggested a sale was imminent. It's a great story: Dedicated indie actress makes turns director, finds big success. If only the protagonist had lived to see it. —Steve Ramos

UPDATE: Variety's Fest Central blog reported yesterday that Fox Searchlight bought Waitress for about $5 million.

CORRECTION, January 25: This item originally said Waitress was Shelly's directorial debut. In fact, it was the third film she directed.