Sundance 2020: Shirley

Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young appear in Shirley by Josephine Decker, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Thatcher Keats.

Shirley sees filmmaker Josephine Decker returning to Sundance with a period drama that features strong performances from its acting ensemble.

Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young) are moving to a small college town in Vermont as Fred hopes to land a job at the local college.  Before they know it, professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) offers them free room and board.  It comes with something of a catch because it means Rose must clean up the house while looking after Fred’s wife, Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss).  After the release of her last work, Shirley has more or less become a recluse.  Hence the need for somebody to look after her.  Things are rough at first but eventually, the four of them come to get along with each other.  At what cost though?

Stanley and Shirley have a toxic relationship.  Okay, let’s be fair: this is a fictional take on their lives so it shouldn’t be trusted as 100% true.  No couple could manage to survive the toxic-ness without a divorce.  And yet, the two of them stay together throughout it all.

We’ve seen films about the creative process especially when it comes to writing.  There’s just something in watching such a film being directed by Josephine Decker.  Moreover, Moss is amazing in the role.  More on this in a moment!

Shirley isn’t the easiest person to work with.  However, Moss manages to turn in another strong performance in her portrayal of the horror author.  I cannot say this enough.  Elisabeth Moss is becoming one of the greatest actresses of this generation.  It’s only a matter of time before Oscar comes calling for Moss.  While I’m not familiar with the real-life story of Stanley and Shirley, Sarah Gubbins’ script really paints a picture.  It’s quite a story but it enables Decker to direct these superb performances from the ensemble.

The film is a far cry from what director Josephine Decker gave us a few years ago in Madeline’s Madeline.  Where that film was solely art house, this one has the potential to find a commercial audience or land on a streamer.  The script finds ways to lighten the mood up, which is certainly essential given the subject material.

Shirley is a far cry from Madeline’s Madeline two years ago.

DIRECTOR:  Josephine Decker
SCREENWRITER:  Sarah Gubbins
CAST:  Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman

Shirley held its world premiere during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Grade: 4/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.