Big Little Lies is an HBO mini-series of seven episodes. It’s a very fun and suspenseful movie with an ending that will probably surprise you. I always try to predict endings as I watch a movie, but I didn’t even come close to guessing the finale of this one. The series is based on a novel of the same name by Liane Moriarty which looks like a pretty good read in itself. I read the first two chapters and it looks good. I’ll probably finish the book, just to see if it varies in any important ways from the movie. I find comparison of novels and their movie adaptions endlessly fascinating.
There are two excellent reviews of Big Little Lies by two of my very favorite TV and movie reviewers, Francine Prose and Emily Nussbaum. The Francine Prose review is, I think, the best. Prose’s review is “Sex and the City in Hell” in the New York Review of Books Daily and Nusssbaum’s review is “The Surprising Generosity of Big Little Lies” in the New Yorker. For me, these reviews were almost as much fun as the movie itself.
Big Little Lies is basically an updated woman’s view of the world with some very sharp teeth. The series revolves around four very interesting women. Madiline (played by Reese Witherspoon) is the wife of a nerdy computer programmer and lives in a beach home to die for in Monterey, California. (The whole movie takes place in upscale Monterey.) Madeline, in Francine Proses’ words, “projecting herself into the world like something shot from a cannon” is a many faceted character trying to deal with motherhood, boredom as a housewife, a nerdy but nice husband, many adoring women friends, and many female enemies, a lover in the wings, the mother of a super cute 6 year old daughter who thinks she is 21, and another 16 year old daughter with all the problems of adolescence. The idealistic teenage daughter decides to auction off her virginity online and donate the proceeds to a charitable organization combating sex trafficking. In short, Madeline is a modern woman dealing with all the not so minor problems of being a woman in the first world.
Celeste (Nichole Kidman) is Madeline’s best friend who has a very scary husband who abuses her physically and mentally while pretending to be passionately in love with her. Jane (Shailene Woodley) is a newcomer to Monterey who is befriended by Madeline and Celeste. Jane has a very dark back story including a date rape that led to the birth of her son Ziggy whom she loves deeply. Renata is a super wealthy executive of a silicone valley type company who lives with her husband in multi-million dollar home overlooking the beach and the ocean. All the scenes in her home are a form of real-estate porn seldom achieved in even the glossiest of hollywood movies. She is the rich, uptight bitch of the movie.
All of the above women have kids who are just beginning first grade in the upscale Monterey public grade-school. The plot of the movie is set into motion when Jane’s son Ziggy is accused by Renata’s daughter of bullying her at school. This incident ends up setting all the Moms against each other. The Moms and other Monterey residents form various coalitions as they spit and claw at each other in varied and catty ways. And in a bewildering but suspense-building manner, a murder that occurs later on in this tight little group is ominously hinted at and commented on all thru the movie. The murder is the hook that provides the suspense that pulls us thru the movie.
But this is really not a who-done-it murder mystery. It is actually an fairly sensitive story with some pretty deep themes. Most of all, it is about the problems women face even in the first world. The treatment of women– including marital rape, marital violence, the fate of second class citizenship (still), violence, child rearing in semi-broken families, and how to find meaning in a life that is empty even when surrounded and overwhelmed with luxury and big money–are a few of the themes of the movie.
There is also a theme about children as victims in all the maneuverings and infighting of the parents. In many ways all of the adults use their kids as weapons against other adults. And this hurts the youngsters. All the kids in this movie are lovable, but very real children who know far more about everything than their parents think and who are the ones who really get hurt. The kids tend to be ignored by the parents, they are hugely affected by the violence and deceit they live in but they still shine through in their essential innocence and joyfulness and lovableness. Ziggy (Jane’s son), Chloe and Abigail (Madeline’s daughters) and the damaged twins who are Celeste’s sons, steal the show in many scenes. These kids are all great. And as child-actors they are some of the best I’ve ever seen.
I would rate this series not as first class literature, but as a very high-end pop film. It has something important to say about contemporary American life and about the current state of feminism. But the solutions offered are not entirely serious or even quite acceptable. But it is a very entertaining and believable story that I enjoyed totally.
I definitely won’t reveal the surprising finale of the movie. After you see it, let the rest of us know what you think. Is this a serious take on feminism or is the ending a little off base, a little over the top???