Review: ‘Shirley,’ starring Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young and Logan Lerman

June 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss in “Shirley” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Shirley”

Directed by Josephine Decker

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1964 in Bennington, Vermont, the psychological drama “Shirley” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans) representing academia and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two married couples who are temporarily living together have tensions and conflicts over emotional well-being, infidelity and career achievements.

Culture Audience: “Shirley” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of actress Elisabeth Moss, real-life author Shirley Jackson or atmospheric dramas about people who play mind games.

Logan Lerman and Odessa Young in “Shirley” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Shirley” is not an easy film to watch because the movie’s namesake—renowned horror writer Shirley Jackson—is not someone who lives life easily. The movie is based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014’s book “Shirley: A Novel,” a fictional story of an emotionally troubled Jackson and her professor husband, Stanley Hyman, inviting a young newlywed couple named Fred and Rose Nemser to temporarily live with them. Fred and Rose are offered free lodging in exchange for doing chores around the house. But the invitation into the Jackson/Hyman home is really so Shirley can have a distraction from her anxiety, depression and apparent delusions.

“Shirley” the movie—directed by Josephine Decker and written by Sarah Gubbins—starts off with the naïve newlyweds Fred (played by Logan Lerman) and Rose (played by Odessa Young) arriving by train to Bennington, Vermont. It’s 1964, and they’ve moved to Bennington because Fred has been hired as an assistant to Stanley (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), who’s an English professor at Bennington College. Chain-smoking, hard-drinking Shirley (played by Elisabeth Moss) has become a bed-ridden recluse after the very divisive reactions to her psychological horror novels and short stories, most notably “The Lottery” and “The Haunting of Hill House.”

Shirley’s reputation has preceded her, so Rose and Fred are intrigued to meet this famous but unsociable author. And viewers soon see why Shirley has a reputation for being difficult. At a dinner party at their home, Stanley plays the charming host, while Shirley is the temperamental, often abrasive artist. When someone asks Shirley, “What are you writing now?” She replies curtly, “A little novella called ‘None of Your Damn Business.””

When newlyweds Rose and Fred arrive at the home, Stanley asks them to temporarily stay at the house to help with household duties, such as cleaning and shopping, in exchange for living rent-free at the house. Stanley explains that the family housekeeper has suddenly quit, so they’re desperate for the help, since Shirley is having one of her “bouts.” Rose is pregnant and reluctant to accept the offer, but Fred doesn’t want to alienate his new boss, so he says yes.

Meanwhile, the “bout” that Shirley is having is a bout of depression. Stanley has to plead with her to get out of bed, in order to meet the new couple who will be living with them. (In the “Shirley” novel, Shirley and Stanley have four children. In the movie, the couple has no children.)

Shirley isn’t thrilled about Rose and Fred being there. “A clean house is a sign of mental inferiority,” Shirley tells Stanley. “I don’t want strangers here.” Stanley convinces Shirley to have dinner with him and the new couple by telling her that “it’s cocktail hour” and that she doesn’t have to behave at the table.

And “misbehave” Shirley does. Knowing that Rose is pregnant, Shirley rudely asks Rose if Fred knew that Rose was “knocked up” before he married her. She makes some other comments that are meant to upset the couple, just to see what their reaction will be. Rose gets so upset that she and Fred leave the dinner table early. When Rose and Fred are alone together in their room, Rose says she wants to leave as soon as they can, while Fred tells her that they can’t risk alienating Stanley because Fred is hoping that Stanley will recommend him for a permanent position at Bennington College.

Meanwhile, Shirley continues to make Rose uncomfortable. When Rose goes into Shirley’s study, supposedly to bring some coffee, Rose ends up looking through some of the things in the study instead. Shirley catches her in the act and yells at Rose to never go in the study again. Rose can’t help but feel disappointed in the way that Shirley is treating her because when they first met, Rose complimented Shirley on “The Lottery” by telling her something she thought Shirley would like to hear: “The Lottery” made Rose feel “thrillingly horrible.”

Shirley has been working on a novel based on the mystery of a real-life missing Bennington College student named Paula Jean Welden (also played by Young), in a case that has remained unsolved. Rose also becomes obsessed with the case, so Rose and Shirley start to become closer over this common bond. The two women end up becoming co-dependent friends, which is a surprise to Fred.

It’s implied, not outrightly stated, that Shirley and Rose are also sexually attracted to each other, with Shirley making the first moves in being sexually flirtatious with Rose. For example, there’s a scene where the two couples have dinner together, and Shirley suggestively rubs her leg against Rose’s leg underneath the table without their husbands’ knowledge. And there’s another scene where Shirley and Rose almost come close to having an erotic embrace and kissing.

Meanwhile, Stanley flirts with Rose too, by rubbing up against her and even kissing her quickly on the mouth when they’re alone together. She reacts with surprise, but doesn’t say anything to protest. It’s not much of a shock to find out later in the story that Stanley cheats on Shirley with female students at Bennington College. (One of his eccentricities is playing the music of blues artists such as Leadbelly in his his all-female classes.) Shirley knows about Stanley’s philandering but does nothing about it except privately seethe.

Because his wife is a successful author who makes more money than he does, Stanley tries to validate his intelligence and ego in the marriage by telling Shirley that he needs to look over her drafts before she sends them to her publisher. And in order to thwart any power that the younger and better-looking Fred might have in the household, Stanley does a brutal critique of Fred’s dissertation in front of Fred, Shirley and Rose. Underneath the easygoing and friendly demeanor, Stanley is really a creepy control freak.

As Rose spends more time with Shirley, Rose starts to become more like Shirley: paranoid, disheveled and suspicious of what kind of infidelities her husband might be committing. It’s a change in Rose that Fred doesn’t like at all. And so, the roles between the couple are reversed: Rose once was eager to leave Shirley’s home because Shirley made Rose feel intimidated and unwanted, but now Rose is reluctant to leave because Shirley now makes her feel trusted and needed in the home.

“Shirley” is the type of movie that’s more about evoking moods rather than telling a straightforward narrative. For people who aren’t familiar with the “Shirley” novel on which this movie is based, don’t expect it to be the type of story where Rose and Shirley turn into ace detectives to solve the mystery of a missing person.

The movies touches a little on the rigid and expected roles of women in that era, when Shirley comments to Rose about Rose’s unborn child: “Let’s pray for a boy. The world is too cruel to girls.”

But the heart of the story is how Shirley and Rose end up finding out that they are kindred spirits because they both consider themselves to be “outsiders.” There’s a pivotal scene in the movie where Rose confesses to Shirley that Fred’s parents cut him off because he eloped with Rose. Shirley tells Rose, “People are afraid to brush up against me. They’re afraid my dark thoughts will infect them.”

All of the actors in the cast do a perfectly fine job with their roles, but Moss (who seems to like portraying characters with a lot of emotional turmoil) has to do the heaviest lifting, since Shirley is the catalyst for almost everything in the story. “Shirley” is not her most memorable film, but Moss’ performance is compelling enough that viewers will be curious to see what she does next in the story.

However, parts of the film do end up dragging and might bore people who are expecting more things to happen. “Shirley” portrays the uncomfortable reality that insecure people often unnecessarily create chaos in their lives because inner peace is just too banal for them. The movie is less about Shirley Jackson’s creative process and more about her tendency to emotionally destroy and self-destruct.

Neon released “Shirley” in select U.S. virtual cinemas, digital, VOD and Hulu on June 5, 2020.

Review: ‘End of Sentence,’ starring John Hawkes and Logan Lerman

May 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

John Hawkes and Logan Lerman in “End of Sentence” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“End of Sentence”

Directed by Elfar Adalsteins

Culture Representation: Taking place in Ireland and briefly in Alabama, the drama “End of Sentence” has an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: After his wife dies, a father tries to reconnect with his estranged ex-convict son, as they travel to Ireland to spread her ashes for her last dying wish.

Culture Audience: “End of Sentence” will appeal primarily to people who like emotionally authentic dramas about difficult family relationships.

John Hawkes and Sarah Bolger in “End of Sentence” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“End of Sentence” is one of those movies that has a unique family story to tell, but so much of the story is universally relatable to people, regardless of what kind of families they have. There are multiple layers to the relationship between the father and son at the center of the story—and that’s why “End of Sentence” should not be considered just another road-trip movie.

The story begins in Alabama, where American salesman Frank Fogle (played by John Hawkes) and his Irish-born wife Anna Fogle (played by Andrea Irvine) are visiting their only child, Sean Fogle (played by Logan Lerman), in Alabama Correctional Facility, where Sean has been locked up for auto theft. Anna is wearing a head scarf, which a prison employee tells her to remove due to prison rules. It’s obvious that she’s bald underneath the scarf, and she removes it with some self-conscious hesitation.

When Anna and Frank meet with Sean in the prison, Anna’s words to Sean confirm that she does have a terminal illness, when she says to Sean, “I’ve come to say goodbye.” Sean seems to be a hardened criminal, but he does show some affection when his mother hugs him. However, Sean’s demeanor toward his father very cold and detached.

The next time that Frank sees Sean again, it’s the day that Sean has been released from prison. Frank is now a widower, but the loss of his wife hasn’t brought this father and son closer together. In fact, when Frank shows up to give Sean a ride, Sean is so angry and dismissive toward Frank, that Sean tosses aside a sack of new clothes that Frank brought to him, by throwing the clothes in a nearby garbage can.

Sean also refuses to get in Frank’s car. But before Sean drives off with a police officer who gives him a ride, Frank tells Sean that it was Anna’s dying wish that Frank and Sean take a road trip together to spread her ashes out on a lake in Ireland. Andrea also has some property in Ireland that she left to Sean in her will, and Frank wants Sean to view the property in order to decide to keep it or sell it. However, Sean flat-out refuses to take the trip.

Frank and Anna seem like kind-hearted and compassionate people who tried to raise their son the right way. Why is Sean so ill-tempered and disrespectful to his father? That answer is revealed later in the film, when Sean and Frank are on their trip in Ireland.

Sean changed his mind about going on the trip because after getting out of prison, he found it difficult to find a job due to his prison record. However, through a prison-release program, Sean did get a job offer to start work at an electronics warehouse—but it’s in Oakland, California, and Sean needs financial help from his father to move there. And that’s why Sean reluctantly decided to go on the trip with Frank. But they’re under a time crunch, because Sean has to start this new job in five days, or else the job will be given to someone else.

When they arrive in Ireland, Frank and Sean go to a car rental place, where they’re attended to by a female clerk. And it isn’t long before their opposite personalities begin to clash. When they’re in the car, Frank chastises Sean for staring at the female clerk’s breasts while she was helping them. Frank tells Sean: “You should show respect to give respect. I should know—I’ve been in sales all of my life.”

This lecture sets off Sean, who’s been simmering with anger toward his father, to verbally lash out at Frank. Sean tells Frank that he shouldn’t talk about respect because Frank let himself be bullied by his own father, who was an abusive alcoholic. Sean lets Frank know that he doesn’t respect Frank for how Frank let his own father mistreat him and others.

It’s revealed later that there’s more to this story of why Sean is so resentful toward Frank: Frank’s father used Sean as a “human ashtray,” by putting lit cigarettes out his skin, when Sean was a child and alone with his paternal grandfather. Frank found out, and Sean is still very angry over how Frank handled everything. The details of Frank’s reaction to this child abuse are revealed further in the story.

Even without this child abuse in Sean’s background, it’s very clear how dissimilar Frank and Sean are to each other when it comes to dealing with life. Frank is very calm, non-confrontational and doesn’t like taking risks. Sean is quick-tempered, tends to pick fights and is a big risk-taker.

For example, when they’re eating together at a diner, they both order hamburgers, but Frank was served a hamburger that was different than what he ordered. Sean tells Frank to berate the server and demand to get the hamburger that he ordered, but Frank refuses, and instead removes some of the unwanted ingredients from the hamburger and eats it without a fuss.

To make matters even more tension-filled, Frank and Sean have to share a hotel room together (with separate beds), which isn’t an ideal situation, but it’s an indication that they’re on a limited budget. Meanwhile, Frank tells Sean something that Sean doesn’t really want to hear: While they’re in Ireland, they have to attend an Irish wake for Andrea.

The wake (which is held at the bar of the hotel where Frank and Sean are staying) is attended by her family members who could not go to the Andrea’s funeral in America. Sean feels out-of-place because it’s his first time in Ireland, and he doesn’t know anyone there besides his father. But at the bar counter, he notices a pretty blonde sitting by herself. They look at each other in a way that people do in movies where you know that these two are going to hook up later.

Meanwhile, a grieving Frank is surprised to find out at the wake that Andrea had an ex-boyfriend in Ireland whom she ran off with during a rebellious time in her life, before she met Frank. The ex-boyfriend’s name is Ronan Quinn, and Frank is told that Ronan’s family owns a horse-breeding farm. An old Polaroid photograph that Frank sees at the wake shows Ronan and Andrea on Ronan’s motorcycle.

This photograph, combined with the realization that he didn’t know as much about Andrea’s past as he thought he did, triggers Frank to find out more about Ronan. The movie veers into this subplot for a while, but it doesn’t lose focus from the real story, which is how this trip is going to affect Frank and Sean’s relationship.

After the wake, Frank and Sean go back to their hotel room where Frank is ready to go to sleep. But Sean is feeling restless and irritated, so he heads back to the hotel bar. The blonde who locked eyes with him earlier is still there by herself, so Sean goes up and introduces himself to her. She says her name is Jewel.

It isn’t long before Sean and Jewel have a somewhat flirtatious conversation. He tells her why he’s in Ireland, while she confesses that she’s just left a physically abusive boyfriend and she’s now homeless and trying to figure out what to do next. Therefore, it’s not much of a surprise that these troubled and lonely people end up making out in the back seat of Frank and Sean’s rental car.

But before things get too intense, a drunk Sean vomits outside the car, thereby ruining the sexy mood of the encounter. An embarrassed Sean tells Jewel that she can leave if she wants, but she decides to stay. They spend the night together in the car.

The next morning, Frank sees that Sean has spent the night in the back of the car with a woman who’s basically a stranger. Some awkward introductions are made, and Sean asks Frank (who’s the authorized driver for the car rental) if they can give Jewel a ride to where she need to go. Frank refuses because he doesn’t want to violate the car policy of picking up hitchhikers.

But when Frank has trouble starting the car, and Jewel (who says she knows cars because her father’s a mechanic) easily fixes the problem, it’s not a surprise that Frank relents, and Jewel is now along for the ride. The rest of the movie takes a few twists and turns (some more predictable than others) in showing how this decision affects the rest of their journey.

One of the best things about “End of Sentence” (which was written by Michael Armbruster) is that it avoids the pitfalls of many road-trip movies that overstuff the story with a lot of wacky characters and over-the-top situations. Everything that happens in “End of Sentence” is entirely believable, which makes the human emotions in the story even more poignant. The movie doesn’t feel overly scripted, because not every moment in the movie serves a big purpose the way that some movies cynically set up a scene purely for melodrama.

Hawkes and Lerman give commendable performances as this estranged father and son trying to find some of peace of mind while navigating the tensions of their relationship. Hawkes is a terrific character actor who doesn’t need a flashy role to show how talented he is. The way that he expresses the essence of Frank Fogle through his eyes and body language speak volumes more than what a lot of dialogue might convey. Lerman also skillfully handles the more complicated character of Sean, who might seem like a person who’s always angry at the world, but Sean’s relationship with Jewel reveals a vulnerable side to him that makes it clear that his anger masks deep-rooted insecurities.

And who is this mysterious Jewel? The movie shows more details about her and how her presence affects the relationship between Frank and Sean. There’s a scene in the movie where Jewel, Frank, and Sean are all seated at the same table at a restaurant/bar. Jewel comforts Frank, who’s feeling insecure about wondering that his late wife Anna’s relationship was like with her ex-boyfriend Ronan. Jewel tells Frank, “We might go on rides with rebels, but it’s the kind-hearted ones we spend our lives with.”

The look on Sean’s face and what happens afterward tell a lot about how Sean feels about himself compared to his father. It’s one of the reasons why “End of Sentence” is so good at revealing layers to the story, instead of throwing it all at viewers in an obvious way. The title of the film could refer to the end of Sean’s prison sentence, but it’s also clear that the real prison sentence in this story is holding on to anger and resentment that can poison a relationship with a loved one.

Gravitas Ventures released “End of Sentence” on digital and VOD on May 29, 2020.