While many local theaters remain closed, our local arthouse theater, Cinema Center is offering a wide variety of films to watch at home, and a portion of the rental cost goes toward helping them come back when it is safe to do so. The movies are mostly documentaries and foreign films, but you can also find some fiction in the mix. Most recently, Cinema Center added a trio of docs focused on race relations in the United States, I Am Not Your Negro, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, and Whose Streets?. Of these, the first is perhaps the most compelling, as it draws on the powerful writing of James Baldwin, reflecting on the assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. If you do not want to pick just one film, all three can be rented as a bundle.
Another new feature is the just-released independent film Shirley, a strange merging of fiction and biography focused on the famed horror writer Shirley Jackson. I have mentioned before that Shirley Jackson is one of my favorite writers, so I was excited to see Cinema Center offering this film. In Shirley, graduate student Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) and his new wife, Rose (Odessa Young), move to a small Vermont town to live with Professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his wife, Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), who is notorious for her New Yorker short story, “The Lottery.” What is supposed to be a stay of a few days while they look for an apartment turns into a long term arrangement in which Rose keeps house while Shirley tries to write and pull herself out of a period of depression. As tensions simmer between Stanley and Shirley, Shirley takes a liking to Rose, drawing her into her unconventional home and her research for a new book, based on the disappearance of a young woman from the college.
I have a hard time summarizing the story, as it pulls on so many themes about motherhood, marriage, and creativity, and beautifully connects Shirley’s frustrations with Stanley to her perception of Rose, who is just at the beginning of her marriage. The narrative also looks at just one side of Shirley Jackson. In addition to writing some truly haunting books, Jackson also wrote hilarious collections of short stories about raising her four children in the small college town. That side of Jackson is only hinted at in the movie and her children, presumably grown and at school, are nowhere to be seen. If you enjoy the film, I recommend her novel Hangsaman, which the fictionalized Shirley is working on in the story.
Bringing this vision of Shirley Jackson to life, Elizabeth Moss gives a haunting performance. At times charming and at others repulsive, she captures a woman who is both brilliant and twisted, affectionate and mean. It is understandable how Rose gets drawn in by her. Odessa Young anchors the film with her sharp but naive portrayal of Rose.
Shirley is beautifully made with gorgeous cinematography and a light touch that leads the viewer to reflect on the connection between its two female leads without being too on the nose about its themes. I did not like the book that the film is based on, but I really enjoyed this movie. It’s worth a watch, especially for bookworms or horror fans.
Shirley was written by Sarah Gubbins, based on the novel by Susan Scarf, and directed by Josephine Decker. It runs 1 hour 47 minutes and is rated R for sexual content, nudity, language and brief disturbing images.