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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Shirley is a 1950s-set biopic about American gothic author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) that's told as a thriller in the style of her novels. Jackson grapples with mental health issues after the success of her novella The Lottery, including anxiety, agoraphobia, and depression. Two women have an affair, and newlywed characters engage in passionate sex that includes partial nudity. Jackson is a reluctant partner in an open marriage, and the movie offers a striking character study of a codependent relationship, one that is both toxic and rewarding. Language is strong ("f--k") and often rude and cruel. Jackson's macabre imagination blends with reality, leading to some bloody images and suicidal ideations that, to a person going through a difficult time, could be exactly the wrong thing to see or hear. A pregnant woman drinks and smokes, as do the other main characters (Shirley herself is a chain-smoker).
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What's the story?
In SHIRLEY, American author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) has achieved literary recognition with her novella The Lottery. But with success has come crippling pressure to create a work of equal or greater magnitude. When a local college student goes missing at the same time that a newlywed couple temporarily moves into her home, Jackson finds her muse as she aspires to write a masterpiece.
Is it any good?
As far as biopics of anguished geniuses go, Shirley is the anti-A Beautiful Mind, told with less romanticism and more intrigue. While in that film mathematician John Nash and his psychoses were portrayed as handsome and heartbreaking, here, Jackson and her anxiety and agoraphobia are shown as frumpy, dumpy, and grumpy. To say that she was ornery was an understatement. Moss disappears inside Jackson's uncomfortable skin to show how she used her razor-sharp mind to conjure cruelties as an act of intelligent superiority. She doesn't flinch while she destroys someone with a blunt observation, only looking perhaps for a glance of appreciation from her equally smug husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg). Stuhlbarg succinctly makes viewers understand how women fall for and stay with terrible men: Stanley is simultaneously charming and intolerable. He's Jackson's biggest supporter and obstructionist, fueling her insecurity and coddling her mental health problems for his own sympathy farming.
What's particularly intriguing about Shirley is that director Josephine Decker doesn't tell a straightforward narrative. Her tale unwinds like the pages of a book, and you're not sure whether you can trust the images being shown. The cinematography is wispy, drenched in greens and golds with a filter that's metaphorically oppressed. The story's framework has Jackson tracking down the details of a young girl gone missing to develop into what will become Hangsaman, but it's a red herring. Jackson is such an intriguing person: messy, complicated, a self-professed witch, an agoraphobe, a feminist who thrives under the thumb of a controlling husband. The film is a fascinating character study, but it doesn't offer solid, satisfying resolutions, and perhaps that's best. Shirley isn't the Shirley Jackson biopic, but a Shirley Jackson biopic: Like her stories, Jackson's life has many angles, and many more stories to tell.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the ebb and flow of creativity. What is "writer's block"? Are there ways to spark creativity?
Shirley Jackson is an American gothic writer. She's also called a horror writer. What is the difference? Why do some consider it less prestigious to be a horror writer?
In what ways is Jackson a feminist? Is this a feminist film?
How are drinking and smoking depicted? Are they glamorized?
- On DVD or streaming: June 5, 2020
- Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman
- Director: Josephine Decker
- Studio: Neon
- Genre: Drama
- Character strengths: Curiosity
- Run time: 107 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: sexual content, nudity, language and brief disturbing images
- Last updated: January 8, 2021
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