The titular character in Olvier Hermanus’ Shirley Adams (Denise Newman) wakes up at three in the morning. She turns her son Donovan (Keenan Arrison) on his bed so he won’t get bed sores. This is part of the daily life of caregivers of people with different abilities. This is true regardless of the relationship between such a person and their caregiver. Scenes like this give subtle hints about where these two people belong within South Africa’s class structure. Even decades after the Apartheid, biracial people still don’t have full access to care, work benefits, or justice. That third right is particularly important to Shirley and Donovan, since the latter is a victim of gun violence. Films like this give awareness to these victims, people who have to do things on behalf of those who can’t do things by themselves.
In fairness to those white people though, not all of them people who call in to the radio decrying social issues they don’t know about. The most prominent white character in Shirley Adams is a medical student who learns about Donovan’s case. That person is Tamsin (Emily Child), who offers to do home visits to help care for Donovan. She does her best to give Shirley tips on how to care for Donovan. Even though yes, previous scenes show that she knows more than half of the things that Tamsin is telling her. The dialogue exposes the limits of what privileged people can do to help the ones who actually need it. And it does this while keeping Donovan and Shirley in the frame, a step in the right direction in depicting the issues they face.
Shirley Adams also does its best and very much succeeds in balancing the film between the titular character and her son. But of course there are more scenes with Shirley than it does with Donovan. A worse version of this film may slide into misery porn. But again, balance is the key as we see some scenes with Shirley at peace. There’s a simplicity to those scenes and to the film in general. Its pastel cinematography, textures, and light score still denote class but gives these characters dignity. This is still a drama with full tragedy, and that tragedy has impact because of how its arc ebbs and flows. This is one of those films that came out as part of TIFF of years past and it’s good to see it back on streaming services.
Shirley Adams comes soon to OVID.