"Waitress" is the third, best and, sadly, the last feature film from the late and gifted writer-actress-director Adrienne Shelly. She was 40 when...

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“Waitress” is the third, best and, sadly, the last feature film from the late and gifted writer-actress-director Adrienne Shelly. She was 40 when she was murdered in her Greenwich Village office/apartment last November.

The movie is a comedy-drama about an abused wife, Jenna (Keri Russell), who becomes pregnant just as she’s planning to leave her threatening husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto). While it’s impossible to watch their scenes without thinking of its creator’s real-life fate (at the hands of a teenage construction worker), “Waitress” is much more than a study of a broken marriage.

This is an ensemble piece in which everyone is allowed to shine: Andy Griffith as a cantankerous tycoon who owns the Southern diner where Jenna works, Cheryl Hines as an older waitress who indulges in an abrupt fling with the boss (Lew Temple), Nathan Fillion as a married doctor who falls for Jenna, and Shelly herself as a lonely waitress who resists but then accepts the attentions of a devoted nerd (Eddie Jemison).

Movie review 3 stars

Showtimes and trailer

“Waitress,” with Keri Russell, Jeremy Sisto, Adrienne Shelly, Andy Griffith. Written and directed by Shelly.

104 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and thematic elements.

Shelly wrote the film’s best role for Russell (star of television’s “Felicity”), who truly blossoms as a champion pie-maker who can’t always control her impulsive side. Jenna is a complicated character, sweet but tart-tongued and full of contradictions. You’re never quite sure what she’ll say or do, and that helps give the movie an edge it might otherwise have missed.

Her indecisive relationships with her husband, her doctor and Griffith’s character allow Jenna to establish an independence from men that suggests she’s always learning. Indeed, Jenna seems to grow up in the course of the film. The final scenes may flirt with sentimentality, but the warmth is earned.

When the tiny, bubbly Shelly visited the Seattle International Film Festival in 1996, she was in her late 20s and full of enthusiasm for a directing career that was just beginning and showed considerable promise. Best-known at the time as the star of Hal Hartley’s “Trust” and “The Unbelievable Truth,” she had clearly learned from one of the decade’s most stylish and distinctive filmmakers.

Her charming debut feature, “Sudden Manhattan,” earned good reviews if not box-office success. She experienced a sophomore slump with her strained 2000 romantic comedy, “I’ll Take You There” (also shown at SIFF), but she was clearly hitting a career peak when she made “Waitress.”

The character she wrote for herself is much like the trusting sweetheart Seattle audiences and the press remember from her visit here.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com