I’ve been thinking about dating a lot recently. In theory, the point of dating is to find the person with whom you’re eventually going to spend the rest of your life. In practice, though, dating seems, especially in college, more about conquests and gaining experience than finding a lifelong partner. This isn’t an issue, but it does make me wonder how our relationships change as we get older. “Shirley” takes this question and creates a thrilling film in which two couples spiral into each other, pushing themselves in and out of reality.
“Shirley” is rooted in comparisons that strategically reveal the flaws of the two relationships. The young Fred (Logan Lerman, “Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief”) and Rose (Odessa Young, “The Professor”) are bright-eyed newlyweds who have yet to experience the emotional rollercoaster of a long-term relationship. Rose has a naïve, blind trust in Fred, the kind of trust we all want to have in a relationship and the trust that’s missing in Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg, “Call Me By Your Name”) and Shirley’s (Elisabeth Moss, “The Kitchen”) relationship. It’s this initial difference in timeline that sets the two couples up for the dramatic flair of the film — when Fred and Rose move in with Stanley and Shirley, the established habits of the older couple have a strong influence on the budding marriage and we watch as Fred and Rose slowly fall out of sync, only to see Rose grow closer and closer to Shirley.
And as Rose and Shirley’s relationship develops, it becomes clear that neither of their husbands are capable of bringing out the best in either character. Shirley is tethered to a cheating and sexist professor, a man who can’t stand the fact that his wife is smarter than him. Rose, on the other hand, has yet to find her voice. She is mousey and barely even secure in her role as Fred’s wife. Neither woman fully reaches their potential until they meet the other. As “Shirley” unfolds we watch Rose grow into a powerful woman, and eventually mother, and leave behind her insecurities as a “little wifey.” The film creates an atmosphere ripe with feminism without ever raising a picket sign.
To watch these couples dance around each other is like seeing two very strange courtships — Fred and Stanley perform with the awkward gaits of two males unwilling to bow to the other. In contrast, Shirley and Rose create a symbiotic relationship — Shirley’s eccentricity brings Rose’s confidence to the surface while Rose’s burgeoning self-discovery motivates Shirley to return to her work; neither of which would have ever been accomplished in their relationship with their respective husbands.
“Shirley” is a strange film. Jump cuts and shaky camera work often made it hard to follow, but the film creates rich, emotionally driven scenes that explore the parallels of relationships in a way that is often muddled in other pieces. As “Shirley” comes to a close, it’s obvious that what we watched was not just two couples living together, but the origin story of how Stanley and Shirley’s relationship came to be. These are no longer coincidental parallels in their relationship, but intentional patterns that occur in committed partnerships.
This film answered one of my burning life questions: what is it like to be married to Logan Lerman, our resident white boy of the decade? Disappointing, to say the least. But after “Shirley” I realized we’ve been dreaming about the wrong person; Elisabeth Moss takes the life of a suburban wife, working from home, and makes it an adventure. A scary one, but an adventure nonetheless. It’s this reevaluation of our long-held expectations, both about Logan Lerman and marriage, that make “Shirley” such an impactful film.