Self-important women clad in Lulu lemon picking their kids up from chakra therapy: a sign of the end times or maybe just the pinnacle of gen-X living. HBO seemed to be trying to tackle a certain demographic with its latest mini-series, Big Little Lies. If Girls is an ode to the college-grad who works as a dog walker and writes bad, sexually explicit haikus and yells at her parents about gentrification before asking them to venmo her some money for vegan lunch, then Big Little Lies is a love letter to the halfway college grad who opted to marry the doughy college boyfriend who got a job in silicon valley with whom she has two back-talking kids named Atticus and Hamilton. Or so it would seem.
I’m always fascinated by a product that appeals to a broad audience, especially when I enjoy it myself – it makes me question my own taste. Embarrassingly, I associate the widely lauded with lesser quality, and the lesser known with untainted artistry – a rookie mistake. Of course, sometimes untainted artistry is appreciated widely, and that makes it no less inspired and true. This is the case with Reese Witherspoon’s latest project, an adaption of Moriarty’s novel Big Little Lies, which shares similarities with two of Witherspoon’s recent projects, Gone Girl and Wild, the latter sharing a director and co-star with the HBO series. It has the artistic vision and elevated style of the latter, undoubtedly the work of director Jean-Marc Vallée, and shares the crime-thriller genre of the former, which apparently draws a large audience.
I typical avoid media revolving around crime on the basis of not wanting to hear about made up terrors when there’re enough non-fictional atrocities affronting me on the daily. So I was glad to discover that Big Little Lies doesn’t seem to relish crime as much as Gone Girl, but rather use it as a juxtaposed medium to contrast complicated characters. I’m getting ahead of myself.
The seven episode mini-series centers on five women in present day Monterey, California, which means yoga, questionable parenting, wine, and since it’s HBO, shower nudity. The fifteen-second-skip-ahead was made for prudes like myself.
Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) holds an unofficial, influential role in her tight-knit community, a societal position mirrored by her young, wise-cracking daughter, Chloe, who has similar influence over her fellow first graders. Everything is set into motion when Jane (Shailene Woodley) moves to the area and extends a hand of friendship to Madeline, who in turn welcomes her into her inner circle – which really only extends to her best friend Celeste (Nicole Kidman). Jane’s new friends soon become lifelines when she and her son, Ziggy, fall victim to primary school politics, gossip and slander on the very first day of school. A murky accusation pits Jane against Madeline’s frenemy, Renata (Laura Dern), adding further fuel to an established rivalry. The line is drawn in the sand, sides are picked and the hoard of mothers have new drama to sink their teeth into.
The developing micro-scandal turns out to be a sort of crucible, bringing long dormant secrets to the surface and welding the women together inseparably. Madeline seems to be losing the passion in her marriage, control over her kids, and influence at her job. Jane is losing her peace of mind, wondering where she’s going and if the past she eluded is as far behind her as it seems. And Celeste is starting to question the life she’s built for herself with her kids and seemingly perfect husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), a marriage that has its own precarious imbalance of passion.
The creative team did a remarkable job of creating seven episodes that are as strong on their own as they are together. Each episode is a cohesive piece of the puzzle while still being independently entertaining as well as a cohesive part of a puzzle that enriches the episodes that precedes and proceeds it. And I think that speaks to the usefulness of the “mini-series” as a medium of story telling, both generally and specifically with this story.
I haven’t read the book, but between marathoning the series, twice now, and my rain-man-esque, obsessive attention to detail, I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on the story. I don’t think a feature film would have worked; neither would a regular TV series. There was too much story to fit into 120 minutes and network television would’ve stretched the plot beyond recognition for profit. I’m even glad it was broadcast on HBO, a more esoteric alternative to Netflix. Had it been shown on netflix, it would have been like selling artisan coffee at 711.
As I mentioned before, Big Little Lies is the epitome of quality television. That’s largely thanks to the direction by Vallée, whose previous credits include Wild and Dallas Buyer’s Club. He masterfully curates the work of his inspired creative team, giving the series a distinct, evocative aesthetic that’s both brooding and full of breath. The production design is immaculately tasteful, with exquisite shades of muted blues and greens that draws you in with siren-like allure. The design and breathtaking locations are pure art as captured by cinematographer Yves Bélanger, who might have super-hero abilities when it comes to using natural light.
Vallée also outdid himself directing his cast. The series has been praised for its strong performances, and for good reason. Reese Witherspoon is a force, giving her best performance since her Oscar winning role in 2005’s Walk the Line – and that’s saying something, as she’s had multiple outstanding performances since then. I was most impressed with the ease in which she switches between comedic and dramatic delivery. I found her character to be the most compelling, both as written and as performed; partly because in any other hands the character’s unbecoming traits would have been exaggerated to the point of villainy, or worse, her shortcomings would have been celebrated to the point of parody. Instead, we get a complex and winsome character played artfully.
Between Nicole Kidman’s brilliant performance in last year’s Lion and her role in this series, the past year has made me a major fan. Most of the word-of-mouth I’ve heard about Big Little Lies has been about to her compelling performance. In many ways, she had the hardest job; her character is arguably the most layered and is at the crux of most of the biggest twists and turns. Kidman plays them with the subtlety and instinct that can only come from a rare talent, reminiscent of golden-age movie stars. Again, in other hands, these dramatic moments would have been cringe-inducingly over-performed and enjoyed only by the YA readers and Buzzfeeders. Excuse the searing cynicism.
Really, the smart acting choices and trope-avoidance isn’t much of a surprise, not only because of the caliber of the actresses, but also because of who’s at the helm. Vallée is unmatched in his ability to direct resonating and true depictions of mental and emotional anguish. This is wonderfully illustrated in Shailene Woodley’s performance, which is no doubt at the same caliber of her more vetted costars, in case you were wondering. A minor spoiler alert – her character’s storyline deals with past, traumatic assault. I’ve never seen this subject matter handled so compellingly. This is no doubt the result of a partnership between an equally gifted and perfectly matched actress and directer.
I couldn’t, in good conscience, finish my review without mentioning the incredible Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgård and Zoë Kravitz. They all add immense depth and sincerity to the character-rich series. The story prevalently features the children of the characters, and the young actors who play them are the best young actors I’ve seen, particularly the boy playing Ziggy. The only disappointments for me as far as performances go, are those by Adam Scott and Jeffrey Nordling – but it’s inscrutable if the graining performances are a problem of creative direction, unimpressive acting, or not a problem at all but, rather, intentional. Either way – woof.
Finally, what impresses me the most about the series is the brilliant editing and incorporation of music. I’m often curious how much of the final cut of a film is shaped by decisions made on the page – the script, behind the camera or during the editing process. Especially with Mysteries, which rely heavily on the timing of when pieces of information are revealed, editing is everything. And this is unequivocally the best editing I’ve seen. Whether it’s mostly the work of the editors or some credit is due to the director or screenwriter (David E. Kelly), it’s an impressive achievement. And it seems that the brilliant choices in music, from supervisor Susan Jacobs, go hand in hand with the editing. The musicality exhibited in the editing is rare and the song choices themselves are fantastic. This is exemplified in the end of the each of the episodes, all of which have enormous impact, thanks to the musicality. Jacobs is brilliant.
In the end, Big Little Lies is not what it seems, which is fitting for a mystery series. Instead of the hoighty-toighty, scripted-version of Real Housewives-meets-Gone Girl that some of us expected (guilty), we get an impeccably produced, outstandingly performed, and deeply resonant masterpiece. Or whatever the television equivalent is to a masterpiece. If anything, I’ve taken away a new appreciation for the mini-series as a medium. And a renewed resolution to never underestimate Reese Witherspoon.