As Shirley Jackson crumbles behind the weight of her insecurities, she puts her hand on the pregnant stomach of the young caretaker and recent dropout Rose.
"Let's pray for a boy," Shirley says. "The world is too cruel for girls."
This scene comes from director Josephine Decker's new drama "Shirley."
Based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, Decker's film places the famous horror author in a story about trust, friendship and challenging societal norms. This isn't a highlight-driven, routine biopic. "Shirley" captures the essence of a woman driven mad by her dedication to her craft, even as society tries to shush her.
Elisabeth Moss stars as Shirley, and it's her second great performance this year. She shakes, sweats and shivers, oozing bone-chilled dread as she did so well in "The Invisible Man." But there's more than the damsel-in-distress act in "Shirley." Moss is manipulative and challenging as the writer working on what would become the breakthrough novel "Hangsaman."
To get to Shirley's tics, the movie uses the plot device of a younger couple, Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), who stay with Shirley and her husband, literature professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). As Fred accompanies Stanley on the tenure track, Rose stays back to take care of Shirley, who's testy, bed-ridden and bored after shocking locals with her latest published short story. In Rose, Shirley eventually finds inspiration, a vessel to see clearly the story of a missing girl.
Rose and Shirley are held back by their more "successful" husbands. Though Shirley is more of a celebrity, she still needs the praise of the cheat Stanley. Rose was on the way to graduating college when she became pregnant, married young and didn't follow her dreams. In the story of the missing girl, Rose and Shirley see a woman who escaped the constant lies and disappointment of the mid-1960s, when men were dominant breadwinners.
When "Shirley" stays on those feminist themes, it's a striking movie. As she did in "Madeline's Madeline," Decker urgently rushes in sexual tension and mood with abstract scenes, choreographed blasts and an all-encompassing sound design. In relation to Shirley's actual career, however, "Shirley" tells a fraction of this compelling character's life. When the movie ends, it's incomplete and at a frustrating mark for someone whose revolution was just starting.
Still, the larger point of these women going against the normal, male-driven madness shouldn't be lost on audiences. How Decker and Moss cast a spell within that larger theme is a more necessary prescription than a routine biopic.
STARRING: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg and Logan Lerman
DIRECTED BY: Josephine Decker
NOW AVAILABLE: Streaming on Hulu, and available to rent on demand. The movie will also be available to rent beginning at noon on Friday, June 19, for $5.99 through Manship Theatre's virtual cinema. Fifty percent of proceeds will support the Baton Rouge venue and its staff. Get more information at manshiptheatre.org.
RUNNING TIME: 1 hr., 47 mins.
MPAA RATING: R (Restricted) Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
WHY IS THIS MOVIE RATED R? For sexual content, nudity, language and brief disturbing images
Excellent (****), Good (***), Fair (**), Poor (*)