Watching at home suits some movies better than others. For “Shirley,” the new film from director Josephine Decker (“Madeline Madeline”), it seemed right to be in a small, almost claustrophobic room with the lights turned down, sharing too-close space with the characters.
Now streaming on Hulu, “Shirley” is an artful drama about author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), best known for the classic horror tale “The Lottery.” Struggling with a new work and seemingly subsisting on booze, pills and cigarettes, Jackson lives with her husband, professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), in North Bennington, Vermont, in a house whose coat of ivy seems to be choking it.
Into their strange, codependent relationship comes two newcomers: young newlyweds Rose and Fred Nemser (Odessa Young, Logan Lerman), who arrive to board with Jackson and Hyman. Before you can say “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” strange psychological games have begun, with Jackson deliberately entangling naive Rose with a character — a missing young woman — in the book she’s trying to write.
Based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, “Shirley” is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction: Jackson and Hyman are depicted as they were in real life; Rose and Fred never existed. It’s a portrait of a writer possessed by her work, seeing those around her not as people but as notes in the song she can’t quite yet hear. Decker films the house in dim, yellowish light, where Stanley prowls like a preening cat, and Rose, at first delighted to be in the presence of an author she admires, becomes increasingly wary; this house seems full of traps.
At the center of it all is the remarkable Moss; so good in “The Invisible Man” earlier this year, and entirely different yet equally vivid here. While she unveils a deep, smoky voice that’s effective (it sounds as if Shirley is speaking from somewhere else), what’s most striking here is what’s silent: the way Shirley sits awkwardly, like she’s never thought about her body, and how when she gleefully smiles, it’s as if her teeth suddenly get terrifyingly sharper. The film ends with a long close-up, so still you’ll wonder if the camera froze, that I could have watched for hours; a complicated woman, fighting with herself.
On the documentary front: Should you be seeking wisdom and solace during these difficult days, you can do a lot worse than turning to Michelle Obama. Directed by Nadia Hallgren and currently streaming on Netflix, “Becoming” follows Obama on the book tour for her recent memoir, with which the film shares a title. The first Black former first lady is, of course, not just any author, and her book tour is unlike most others: She speaks in vast arenas, interviewed by the likes of Oprah Winfrey or Stephen Colbert, and crowds respond with rock-star exuberance.
If you’ve read “Becoming,” you won’t find much that’s new in the film, but it’s a pleasure to spend time with Obama, watching her giggling with her family and warmly engaging with readers in a book-signing line. She speaks about the unique pressures of her life in the White House; of how, heading home on Air Force One on the Trump inauguration day, she sobbed for half an hour, finally releasing the strain of “eight years of trying to do everything perfectly.” And Obama speaks frankly of racism, of how Black Americans live “with the awareness that we are a provocation”; at one point, she recites a too-familiar litany of names of those killed in racist violence.
But “Becoming” is ultimately uplifting — a quiet celebration of what Obama calls “the power of gathering.” At one point, Obama’s daughter Malia — whose very presence, all grown up, is a poignant reminder of how quickly time passes — appears, encouraging her mother before an appearance. “People are here,” she says, “because people really believe in love and hope and other people.” Maybe “Love and Hope and Other People” will be the title of Obama’s next book. I’d read it.