Big Little Lies

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.

02-big-little-lies-homes-set-e1492443766378.jpg

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.

big-little-lies-review

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.

BLL_107_Madeline.0

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.

17-big-little-lies.w710.h473.2x

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.

 

The Fault In Our Stars

A quick-witted, mildly depressed teenager who spends the majority of her time with her parents, watching America’s Next Top Model and rereading the same book… Even just a few pages in, I was convinced John Green wrote The Fault In Our Stars with me in mind. And I’m not the only one who felt that way. According to The Independant, The Fault In Our Stars has sold nine million copies worldwide to date. Even further, the movie adaptation made 48.2 million dollars in its opening weekend. So what is so special about this story?

What I find most intriguing about The Fault In Our Stars is that this character that I so identify with happens to have cancer.  She’s not a “cancer character.” Green created a character, Hazel, who is first and foremost a person, a relatable, smart, teenaged person, then tell her story which happens to be colored by the terribly whitewashed problem that is cancer. And even so, Hazel’s story isn’t about her cancer, it’s about her living her life despite the restrictions the universe has dealt her. And her restrictions just happen to be worse than average.

The Fault In Our Stars tracks a few months with the perceptive and teenaged Hazel Grace Lancaster who has terminal cancer. Though she’s currently doing okay, thanks to “one of those experimental trial drugs famous in the republic of cancervania for not working,” she has relegated herself to part-time normal teenager and full-time ANTM aficionado. She spends her time rereading her favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction, written by the elusive Peter Van Houten, who she dubs as “the only person who seems to (a) understand what it’s like to be dying, and (b) not have died.”

After being declared depressed by both her mother and doctor, Hazel is forced to attend a weekly “cancer kids” support group where she makes the acquaintance of Augustus Waters. Hazel seems to have met her match in Augustus as he’s both incredibly handsome and exceptionally intelligent, so intelligent, in fact, that he convinces the ever-cautious Hazel to watch a movie with him the same night of their meet-cute. They bond over book recommendations; Hazel’s: An Imperial Affliction; Augustus’: The Price of Dawn, a “haunting novelization” of his favorite video game.

The inescapable romance isn’t challenged so much by Hazel’s cancer but by her conscientiousness, which is both her strength and weakness. She’s so smart and kind that when the opportunity for love presents itself she wrestles with the repercussions of loving and being loved when her time is so limited.

With grace and winsomeness, Hazel’s narrative made me question the way I live and love because, after all, aren’t we all terminal? Just because our vitality is open-ended doesn’t mean we have more time than the fictitious Hazel or the very real, terminally sick all around us. We just have the bittersweet gift of uncertainty and likelihood, not to mention the illusion of control.

The Fault In Our Stars is undoubtedly special. It’s the only book I’ve ever finished and immediately began reading again. The characters are so beautifully crafted that you miss them before you can even put the book down. But the real significance is in what these beautiful characters have to say. John Green has more insight and heart packed into this book than I thought possible. It’s really no wonder that I’m just one of millions who truly, deeply, love this book.

And that’s just the book. Forgive me for focusing the bulk of my film review on the book. I tried summarizing the plot outside of the context of the book, but the two are too deliciously interwoven.

mqsYwhk

The Fault In Our Stars is the most faithful book to film adaptation I’ve seen, which is satisfying for those who love the book. It’s directed by Virginia Beach native Josh Boone, writer and director of Stuck In Love and super-fan of Stephen King. The plot is very much the same as the novel, with a few necessary cuts and changes here and there.  The film is written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the guys behind (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now. They did an impeccable job translating the tone and heart of the book for film, which in turn facilitated powerful and affective performances by the cast.

Shailene Woodley’s performance as Hazel will go down in cinematic history as an iconic dramatic performance akin to Sally Field in Steel Magnolias or Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice. The film’s team had their pick of smart, talented, and beautiful young actors to play Hazel. And while Shailene’s incredible talent, intelligence, and good looks individuate her from other qualified peers, I think it’s her heart that makes her the only choice to play Hazel. Her first Fault In Our Stars-related action was donating her hair to Locks of Love and requesting others do it along with her. Not to mention she gathers and forages her own food and water!

I’d wage Shailene’s prowess as a forager doesn’t compare to her incredible acting. What I found most distinct about her performance was her vocality. Her character has cancer in her lungs, which causes them to fill up with fluid, thus making it hard to breathe and forcing her to wear a cannula. I liked how Shailene distinguished Hazel with her voice instead of putting emphasis on the physicality of her disability. It seems to me more subtle and believable, and it distinguished Hazel from other characters she’s played that could be comparable. [Note: the scene where Gus first tells her she’s beautiful reminded me of a similar scene of hers in The Spectacular Now – but Shailene as Hazel is so different from Shailene as Amy that the comparison was fleeting.]

pHXl5cO

The entire supporting cast from Nat Wolff as Isaac to Willem Dafoe as Peter Van Houten are perfectly suited for their characters and on their a-game. But Laura Dern as Hazel’s mom was the most affective and memorable supporting performance for me. One scene in particular, when she has to tell Hazel that her dream isn’t financially possible, broke my heart. In the book, the scene, of course, is narrated by Hazel and thus seen through her eyes. And while Hazel is a great narrator, incredibly perceptive and empathic, it isn’t as heartbreaking as seeing the scene through both hers and her mom’s eyes, which the film does beautifully.

Hazel mentions in the beginning that the only thing worse than dying from cancer is having a child die from cancer. Laura Dern crafted a nuanced and beautifully believable character and kept that thought in the back of my mind throughout the movie.

And last, but certainly not least, as far as performances go, I have to commend the relative newcomer Ansel Elgort. I was anxious about seeing Elgort’s performance as Gus. While he did a great job in Divergent, I think I, like many other enthusiastic fans who’d been following him since he was cast, had excessively high expectations, so I became increasingly nervous before seeing The Fault In Our Stars. And while I tried my best to tame my unfairly high expectations, they continued to skyrocket. And they were surprisingly exceeded.  He’s equally matched with Shailene and has beautiful moments throughout the whole movie.

My favorite scene of both Ansel’s and Shailene’s is the pre-funeral scene. To me, this is Shailene’s iconic, never-will-be-forgotten moment of her best performance to date. Her delivery of the eulogy affected me in the way only Sally Field’s scene in the cemetery in Steel Magnolias can affect me. It’s just so incredibly authentic. And the scene works because of the support and performance of Ansel. These two have a great chemistry that this movie not only depends upon, but thrives on.

In all, Josh Boone did an outstanding job directing. The movie is beautifully shot and edited. It doesn’t indulge in sentiment, but it has just the right amount of nostalgia. All of the sets, costumes, and locations used are all beautifully designed and compiled. The team behind this movie, the writers, performers, everyone, captured the book in the way only people who love the book could.

*Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox