Based on a novel by, Liane Moriarty, “Big Little Lies”, starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, Zoe Kravitz and Shailene Woodley, was more or less what I expected and yet, still managed to blow my hair back. Aside from the beautiful cinematography, killer soundtrack and sweeping beach shots, the short six episode series was chalk-full of performances I think people should and will be talking about for a long while.
The story takes place in Monterey, California and follows the lives of Jane Chapman (Woodley), Madeline Mackenzie (Witherspoon), Renata Klein (Dern) and Celeste Wright (Kidman). Mother’s, all of them, their lives are completely wrapped up in motherhood, marriage and the many disappointments they either receive or dole out on a daily basis. On the surface, they seemingly have it all, Jane being the exception, and yet they’re the angriest bunch of women on television. The relative peace in their lives begins to crumble when Renata’s little girl, Amabella, is attacked at school and Jane’s son, Ziggy, is blamed. Battle lines are immediately drawn as, Madeline, who only recently met Jane, aggressively defends her and Ziggy against Renata. A CEO, Renata, overcompensates by smothering her daughter with attention, affection and gifts in an effort to make up for being a wildly successful working mom. When Madeline tries to sabotage Amabella’s birthday party, Renata goes in on Madeline’s community theater project. And while that war rages, Celeste, is quietly being brutalized by her husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgard).
Madeline is at the center of the wars being waged in this upper, upper suburban coastal town of, Monterey. You’d think that would make sympathizing with her character impossible but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Madeline is a fully formed character, a complicated cliché and yet, as her ex-husband, Nathan (James Tupper), said, you still root for her.
The two outsiders of the show are Jane and Bonnie (Kravitz). Jane, who is only just moved to Monterey, is a single parent with nary a nickel to her name and Bonnie, who is black, beautiful, young and the real ass kicker, married to Madeline’s ex-husband, Nathan. Jane lucked out, Madeline was one of the first people she met and because of that, was instantly connected with the other high profile moms of Monterey. Despite having lived in Monterey for years and raising her daughter she has with Nathan (who attends the same school as Madeline’s daughter), Bonnie is still an outsider. Being married to Nathan doesn’t help, but her outsider status goes beyond who she sleeps with. She’s exotic and earthy and if being black weren’t enough, she’s totally and completely RELAAAAXED. The complete and polar opposite of most harried mothers. They don’t get it. They want it, but can’t get it and that makes Bonnie a threat. To their womanhood, as well as the cracked wooden foundation on which most of their marriages reside. Bonnie never had a chance.
The one woman who needs the most help, is the one woman everyone confides their problems to. Easy to understand since she never burdens her friends with the war going on in her own home. Pre-marriage and kids, Celeste, was a very accomplished attorney. On more than one occasion, Madeline remarks at what a shark she was. We get a glimpse of that when she goes to bat for Madeline’s play that Renata tries to shut down. Quite a stark contrast to the way she allows herself to be repeatedly victimized by her husband, even going so far as to defend him by taking equal ownership in the violence that persists in their marriage. With two small children, who adore their father and seemingly have no idea that he’s actually the monster he playfully pretends to be, Celeste’s journey to her breaking point is where all of the women’s paths eventually collide.
As previously stated, the performances delivered by the entire cast, were superb. In particular, Witherspoon, Adam Scott (Ed MacKenzie) and Skarsgaard. Witherspoon was all over the place. Vicious and tender, coldly withering and nakedly vulnerable. The kind of girlfriend any woman would want in her corner and funny like I haven’t seen her in a loooong time. Gave me some serious, “Freeway”, vibes.
Playing the role of villain, Skarsgaard, had to walk a pretty tight line. In a sense he was the classic controlling and abusive husband to Celeste. But like all of the women on the show, he too was complicated, and surprisingly very self-aware of his demons. Or at least appeared to be. Perry was vulnerable under Skarsgard’s portrayal of this archetype. At some point I was actually rooting for him to get the help he needed. And when I wasn’t disgusted by him, I liked him. Which to be honest is a real testament to the writing as well as the performance by Skarsgard.
And then there’s Ed. Poor, boring, underestimated, rarely congratulated, Ed. A husband, who proved to be the real hero, in his unconditional love for Madeline. The only constant in the show, he wasn't perfect by any means, but a real man despite several efforts by people, including his wife, to undermine that. Tip o’ the cap to, Scott, for giving such an uncelebrated performance and totally crushing it. Especially there at the end.
This show takes suburban dissatisfaction to a whole new level. And sure, there are some little annoyances, like the kids being a bit more mature than their age realistically implies. Still, viewers will definitely be satisfied and more importantly, thinking about this show long after the finale. Big Little Lies, can be streamed on HBOgo, now.