Big Little Lies (2017)
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Zoë Kravitz, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Scott, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling, and Iain Armitage
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
***This show is currently available via HBO Now/Go***
Single mom Jane Chapman (Woodley) has just moved to Monterey with her first-grade son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) who is quiet, subdued, and perhaps a bit of a pushover -- traits Jane carries as well which don't particularly fit in with the uppity community of Monterey. After the first day of school, Ziggy is called out in public by classmate Annabella as having tried to choke her during class. Annabella's mother is Renata Klein (Laura Dern), a strong-willed executive whose guilt about returning to the workforce makes her virulently appalled anytime her daughter is wronged. Ziggy denies hurting Annabella and the wealthy Madeline Martha Mckenzie (Reese Witherspoon) immediately comes to Jane and Ziggy's aid, in large part because Madeline and Renata are seemingly the two den mothers of distinct large packs of Monterey elite with neither caring for one another in the slightest. Madeline is also good friends with Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), a retired lawyer and mom of twin boys, and while Celeste is a little more hesitant to simply believe Ziggy's innocence, she's frankly got more personal things to be worried about -- she's in the midst of a horribly abusive relationship with her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) that she can't get out of...or perhaps doesn't want to remove herself from.
Yes, I realize the brief summary may create some confusion, but that's not even half of the web of interpersonal relationships that play a role in Big Little Lies and despite the tangled web, it's all incredibly crystal clear where and when allegiances are forged and tensions are raised. David E. Kelley's script is pitch perfect at creating an uppity liberal atmosphere where wealth and bitchiness equals power. Yes, the women presented are all strong, but they're all battling with the fact that they feel they have to exhibit nastiness in order to get their way in their town. This inner conflict in all of them -- they so obviously don't want to act the way they do -- is a pivotal aspect of the character development here and Kelley nails it.
Not only does Kelley succeed, the actresses in this piece are all stellar. Shailene Woodley is an actress I hadn't yet loved, but here she's spot-on as the beleaguered mother who desperately wants to believe her child's innocence, but begins to question it as the community begins to rally against her. Reese Witherspoon is perhaps the best she's ever been (dramatically speaking) as Madeline whose past indiscretions begin to rear their ugly heads as the series progresses. For the first several episodes, I thought she was going to be the MVP here, but then along comes a tour de force performance from Nicole Kidman in the final three episodes and I had to concede the MVP title to her. As a bruised and battered wife who feels unworthy of love and affection, her Celeste is heartbreakingly numb to her surroundings and her pain is palpable throughout.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee (whose previous films Wild and Dallas Buyers Club failed to impress me) not only gets great performances from his trio of leading ladies, but from his entire cast including Laura Dern, Zoë Kravitz, and the young Iain Armitage. Along with a heavy dark, muted color palette that morosely paints most of the visuals, Vallee's camera often lingers in scenes, making us as viewers sometimes feel uncomfortable as we impede on the lives of these strong-willed, flawed women. In the end, though, we don't want to leave. At seven episodes, Big Little Lies was much too short.