Sunday, February 2, 2020

Sundance with Abe: Shirley

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the seventh time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can, as well as video reviews uploaded to YouTube.

Directed by Josephine Decker
U.S. Dramatic Competition

Imagination is important for any writer, but in order to be able to construct fictional characters and narratives, there must be some real-life inspiration. Many authors travel a great deal so that they can see and experience as much of the world as possible. Others, for whatever reason, are not inclined to go beyond what they know and what feels familiar, retreating into a world of their invention rather than interacting with other people. A lack of social contact can intensify the effect of one particular person, who may in fact become a muse, motivating an author to great creative heights.

Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) move to Vermont so that Fred can pursue a career as a professor at a local college. They arrange to stay with Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a respected professor, and his wife Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), a famed horror author. Rose, who has academic ambitions of her own, is relegated to cleaning the house and keeping an eye on the reclusive Shirley in exchange for their room and board. Initially resistant to the idea and Shirley’s toxic mood swings, Rose eventually comes to see Shirley for who she really is, as the author also begins to take a liking to her unwanted babysitter.

This film is meant to be a biopic of Jackson, who wrote many well-known short stories and several books over the course of her career in the mid-1900s. Shirley is indeed a featured character, but this film doesn’t really get to know her. It opens with her already mostly confined to her home, expressing displeasure at her husband’s penchant for affairs with other women, something that she has approved so long as phone calls from any of them don’t interrupt their dinner. Shirley has clearly been through a lot, and her eagerness to find inspiration in newspaper clippings about a missing college girl takes most of her focus until Rose demonstrates her value.

Much of this film features Shirley and Stanley delighting at chipping away at whatever self-confidence their younger guests have. Shirley comes on strong early as she gets into Rose’s head, and Stanley refuses to acknowledge Fred as anything more than competent when he asks him for a recommendation so that he can fast-track his career. Whatever talents they may have, Shirley and Stanley are not nice people, and this film often feels just as alienating as its characters. Moss and Stuhlbarg are indeed good, disappearing into their roles, but that’s enough to make this long and tedious film, a different kind of horror filled with horrific people, palatable.


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