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Shirley is a gothic drama about Shirley Jackson’s haunted life

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A fittingly weird take on a seminal author

Shirley still from Sundance Thatcher Keats / Sundance Institute

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Shirley Jackson is best known for her creepiest and most misanthropic work, like her novel The Haunting of Hill House and the vicious short story “The Lottery.” But she was also a prolific chronicler of domestic life, publishing two books of lighthearted stories about raising her children. It’s a complexity that was frequently pointed out a few years ago, after the release of a Jackson biography in 2016.

Josephine Decker’s new film Shirley isn’t a biography. It’s a drama set during one of Shirley Jackson’s worst periods of depression and agoraphobia, written mostly from the perspective of a fictional young housewife. But it’s driven by women reconciling their deep inner lives with a world that expects them to live for other people, sometimes losing track of reality in the process.

What’s the genre?

Shirley is a highly fictionalized film about an actual person. Based on a novel, it’s set during a real period in Jackson’s life (with some major events rearranged), but it’s built around relationships and characters that are purely fictitious. And tonally, it’s basically a story about Shirley Jackson that unfolds like a Shirley Jackson story. In Shirley, ordinary-looking young women are wracked by barely suppressed melancholy. Resentful intellectuals snipe at each other over dinner. Your life is a daily reminder that success and survival belong to the deeply unpleasant. Thanks to Shirley’s gothic atmosphere, even Jackson’s very ordinary home looks a bit eerie.

What’s it about?

Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) are a newlywed couple moving to Vermont in the 1960s. Rose has dropped out of college after becoming pregnant, and Fred has taken a university job with professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), better known as the husband of author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) — whose story “The Lottery” both thrills and unsettles Rose. But Jackson is in the throes of a deep depression, unable to write or even leave her bed. So Hyman asks the young couple to move in and makes Rose their housekeeper.

Jackson initially despises the arrangement, like she does almost everything else: her husband’s penchant for affairs, the hangers-on who praise her writing, and sometimes herself. But her relationship with Rose slowly warms, and she begins working on a new novel about a missing girl on campus. (The book is Jackson’s novel Hangsaman, although it was written earlier in real life.) Rose, meanwhile, becomes fascinated by Jackson and the missing girl as her relationship with her husband deteriorates.

What’s it really about?

Among other things, the interplay between real life and fiction. Jackson’s Hangsaman protagonist (in the film’s world) has clear parallels with Rose, who begins to feel stifled and invisible, especially when Fred starts lingering on campus with his flirtatious students.

But it’s not totally clear how much Jackson is drawing from Rose, how much Rose is being affected by Jackson’s story, and how much Jackson is writing what she wants to see in Rose. Eventually, the film slips into dreamy vignettes that blur the line between Rose and the missing girl even further, as Rose begins to question her life. And both women’s conflict is intimately tied to being female in 1960s America — where imagination is sometimes the only way to feel free.

Is it good?

The best part of Shirley is Elisabeth Moss as a sharp-tongued and gloriously frumpy agent of chaos. She delights in poking at the raw points in Rose and Fred’s marriage, as well as sparring with just about everybody else she meets — which, given her seclusion, is mostly her husband.

The fictional Jackson’s relationship with Hyman is fascinatingly ambiguous. (As with everything in Shirley, it doesn’t necessarily resemble her real marriage.) Hyman seems genuinely domineering, but occasionally the film suggests that he’s playing up his condescension and arrogance to motivate Jackson, picking fights about her novel and then breaking character after she’s defended it and shut him down.

Rose’s relationship never has as much nuance. (At a Q&A after the screening, Decker nearly apologized to Lerman for Fred’s relatively two-dimensional role.) But Rose is a perfect Shirley Jackson protagonist. She’s deferential and self-sacrificing, with a suppressed strangeness that manifests in odd tics — like surreptitiously flicking raw eggs off a table, one by one.

How can I actually watch it?

Shirley is currently streaming on Hulu and available to rent on Amazon and other services.

Update June 10th, 5:45PM ET: Updated the availability for Shirley after the show’s arrival on Hulu.