Fresh from the acclaimed Sky series 'Big Little Lies', Reese Witherspoon produces and stars in another big-budget production that explores the complex dynamics of family relationships from female perspectives. Little Fires Everywhere is adapted from Celeste Ng's well-received novel of 2017. Set in the affluent American suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio in the 1990's, comes this story of betrayal, disfunction and obsession, which seems ideal for deep lockdown viewing. This review has a few 'spoilers'.
Hoping for instant gratification, I settled down anticipating the familiar trope of successful American families in their suburban, mock-stately homes, their accomplished progeny and perfect relationships unravelling through a series of secrets and lies. As foreshadowed in the title, we knew there would be big trouble coming, because in the establishing shot this mock-stately family home was being burnt to cinders by – who knows? And something about Witherspoon's character Elena Richardson's expression as she watches her home destroyed by fire – like someone conceding a fight – suggests a reckoning of sorts.
The story then jumps back several months, to the events that lead up to that devastating sight. Elena is a model parent (she makes pancakes for her children in the shape of their first initials, like a crazed Martha Stewart). She schedules sex with her husband twice a week (she loves schedules) and carries herself with prom-queen assurance, buying civic favours with boxes of cupcakes. Her four children are healthy and individually talented, especially her youngest daughter Izzy, if only her parents could see it. In their world, offspring must be perfect mini versions of themselves, and there is no room in the Richardson house for this particular child, musical, fiercely intelligent and out of kilter with her family's heteronormative expectations.
Into this suburban landscape, bohemian artist Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) rocks up with yet another fiercely intelligent daughter, Lexie, who, understandably tired of changing schools every few months, embraces Elena's established, pillar of the community lifestyle, and is taken under her wing, thereby setting up a tussle between the two mothers, whose version of sisterhood means being mutually threatened by the other's life choices and skirting round each other like a couple of wild-cats.
Without giving away too much of the plot, this simmering feud between Elena and Mia is stoked by two additional storylines that involve on the one hand child abandonment and adoption, and on the other a surrogacy arrangement that has gone badly wrong. The treatment of the surrogacy story line, in which a heavily pregnant Mia has taken off with the baby she is carrying for a wealthy, childless couple, reminds the audience that in the eighties, this informal arrangement had none of the safeguards one would currently expect; it is her first pregnancy. She is full of grief at a family tragedy and, completely unprepared for the emotional consequences of the pregnancy, she acts out of a primal, single-minded compulsion to keep the baby for herself. The surrogacy is not purely gestational, either; the baby is biologically Mia's. Her motivation for agreeing to it is purely economic, as she wants to continue her studies. Her vulnerability and youth are foregrounded in these flashback episodes, as is the ruthless single-mindedness over her artistic calling that she continues to display sixteen years on.
The second, involving a baby left on a doorstep in freezing weather, and an inter-racial adoption by a childless couple, is treated here as little more than another excuse for the power games played out by the increasingly deranged Elena and Mia. A court procedural felt cursory, and certainly didn't explore the heart-breaking lack of choices faced by an undocumented immigrant woman, trying to raise a baby, alone and destitute in a hostile country.
Either one of these stories would be enough, and deserves more than the over-dramatic, histrionic treatment they receive in the series. Rather, they feel like a pretext to probe the nature of motherhood. In Mia's case, as her name seems to suggest, possession comes first. By inflicting a transient life-style on bright, eager-to-belong Lexie, she wants to preserve the maternal bond of infancy at all costs. Short on personal warmth and quick to flare up when challenged, Mia is the sort of mother whose love can seem dangerously conditional. As played by Kerry Washington, there is a curious tension about her, cold and withholding one minute, the next fixing a liquid stare into middle distance, all tremulous bottom lip, like a child who doesn't get her way.
While they are busily occupied tearing strips off each other or actively undermining each other's life choice, Elena and Mia forget about their children who, unsupervised, go on doing the things adolescents do: they experiment with sex, make mistakes, apply for college. Elena's husband, a frat boy whose successful law practice has provided financially, outsources the parenting to his wife who, in between fixing things with the school principal and the traffic warden over cupcakes, is also a journalist. This social bounty notwithstanding, she occasionally pines for an old love, now a supremely hot news editor working in New York. It's tiring just to think about it.
Witherspoon has made this type of Mom her speciality – we met her in Big Little Lies – though when she dials up the malice to full 'Mommie Dearest', it is genuinely upsetting. Her fallibilities and occasional generous impulses aside, Elena is a toxic, complacent mess – insecure and entirely defined by her affluence and easy fertility.
With so many different strands to the narrative, it is hard to watch this series without comparing it to the novel, which has fewer racial overtones. To see important storylines involving surrogacy and adoption reduced to plot devices or excuses for dramatic disruption (the baby shower comes to mind) is not useful, although I felt that the series told us more about the hit and miss nature of parenthood and the lack of guarantee that biological connection confers good parenting skills. The two main protagonists' respective failure to own their mistakes and acknowledge their own narcissism leads to a destructive but compelling finale. I wanted them both to grow as characters, but we leave them here at the point of catastrophe and flight. There will surely be a sequel and I will be watching just in case they decide to reflect upon their behaviour.