Review: Shirley (Sundance 2020)


Title: Shirley
MPAA Rating: Not Yet Rated
Director: Josephine Decker
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young
Runtime: 1 hr 47 mins

What It Is: A biopic of writer Shirley Jackson (Moss) and her husband in the mid-20th century. When her husband Professor Hyman (Stuhlbarg) invites a young graduate student Fred (Logan Lerman) and his wife Rose (Young). As things begin to unfold a friendship between the two women begins to flourish. One that may see Shirley finish perhaps her greatest piece of published material. A novel about a missing woman in the forests of Vermont.

So, in certain ways, this film was divisive in certain aspects and we found that we had different insights and findings due to our personal experiences as we are different genders. What follows are both of our reviews, including those differentiating insights in what makes this film so interesting according to our world-views.

[lgc_column grid=”50″ tablet_grid=”50″ mobile_grid=”100″ last=”false”]What We Think: What a wonderful period piece to behold. As much as Sundance had time and time so obviously attempted in including the voices of the feminine experience, very few held themselves with so much character, dignity, and nuance as this. And this is the “feminist” poster boy if I’ve ever seen one. This so closely and expertly pictures one young woman left questioning her place as a wife and mother when another, much more experienced and jaded, challenges the traditional structure of relationships and family as she writes her book about a woman forgotten, ridiculed, and disappeared. As a woman, I found so much truth in the writing and expression by all these women (due to a wonderful script): the idea that a majority of women have to take on the idea of their mortality, physique, maternity, and romantic interests very early on in age (God knows I did). It strikes a tremendous cord, making it very personal and satisfying to me, not to mention the set design and costuming were gorgeously convincing. Yet, still not as gorgeously convincing as the characters and performances beheld. Moss and Young have incredible shifting chemistries that lead to a powerful study in the strength women find in each other. Stuhlbarg is quick and well-rounded, as always.

Our Grade: A-, Some of the camerawork isn’t all there, I’ve noticed a weird evolution in modern dramas to take a liking to this “emotion-having” sort of handheld sensibility when I think the framing of sister-subject films such as Little Children, Capote, and/or American Beauty with meticulous would have sufficed and brought more confidence to certain moments on screen. Nonetheless, everything worked together flawlessly in offering conversation about feminity, the value of femininity especially in marriage and motherhood, the duality of relationships both romantic and platonic in different sexually-oriented sensibilities…. this was a very smart drama that I am excited to see again.[/lgc_column]

[lgc_column grid=”50″ tablet_grid=”50″ mobile_grid=”100″ last=”true”]What We Think: So much of the appeal here is the dialogue. The performances. Elisabeth Moss continues to prove she’s the Queen of the Unhinged. Michael Stuhlbarg is one of our best living character actors. Most of what comes out of his mouth is amazing. Josephine Decker has a style all her own. One that perhaps has a bit too much use of a handheld camera. There was something about the cinematography in this that I loved. A sort of darkness. One that seems to mirror Shirley’s mindset. Whatever she’s going through to finish her novel has her in quite a state. I felt that. I related to it. So much of my experience with this was tied to how I read the situations as they unfolded. Having a script as tight and interesting as this one has made for the entire experience just sort of interesting. I love some of the shot selections here and that gave this a look, unlike most things I saw or have seen at Sundance. Moss and Stuhlbarg have so much chemistry and their relationship seems so authentic that you like Shirley and the Dr. they’re not by any means redeemable people but you like them anyway

Our Grade: B+, Such solid storytelling propelled forward by great turns all around. There’s chemistry almost alchemy to the back and forth between each couple. The mid-century Vermont setting elevates the isolation of everything we’re seeing. You almost feel for Rose. I’m not sure how I feel about the ending. It seems almost like it was unsure of what to do. Nonetheless, I enjoy Decker’s style especially in her previous film Madeline’s Madeline and when you combine that with a GREAT script and talented actors you get something really special. Insofar as biopics of great American authors there are so few good ones that this certainly stands out. Likewise, it threatens to change how these narratives are framed (and does well with that) that it is difficult to really look at things like Sylvia and say why didn’t that take any chances.  [/lgc_column]


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