In Big Little Lies, the 2014 novel, Australian author Lian Moriarty took a scalpel to the fictional coastal Sydney neighbourhood of Pirriwee, cutting under the idyllic surface to reveal the neuroses, passions and scandals of a group of intensely competitive Pirriwee mums. The star-studded HBO adaptation may have shifted the action from Sydney to Monterey, but its focus is the same, the public personas and private secrets of mothers that have practically turned parenting into a competitive sport.
The episode revolves around four characters with first graders at the elite Otter Bay School (“private school at a public school price”). There’s Jane (Shailene Woodley), a single mum who has seemingly come to Monterey to escape and who stands out like a sore thumb in this land of oceanfront mansions and high-powered mothers in designer overcoats (at least one of whom assumes that she’s the nanny). She’s quickly befriended by Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), a constantly talking ball of nervous energy with a complete inability to let things go that harbours a simmering resentment towards both the husband who left her and his new girlfriend. Madeline’ best friend is Celeste (Nicole Kidman), a lawyer turned full-time mom whose seemingly idyllic relationship with her much younger husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) masks the reality of abuse and control. And finally, there’s Renata (Laura Dern), a successful Silicon Valley career woman trying to balance work and family life.
Renata takes centre stage in the episode’s standout scene, the revelation that someone tried to choke her daughter Amabella leading to a Scarlet Letter-style inquisition scheme in which the girl quite literally points the finger of suspicion at Jane’s son Ziggy in front of an audience of shocked parents and children. Like a lioness defending her cubs, Renata gets in Ziggy’s face, demanding he apologise in measured, wounded tones while the supposed assailant vainly protests his innocence.
What gives these domestic dramas added bite is the fact that, right from the very start, we know at least one leads to murder. The series opens with cops arriving to investigate a dead body at a charity fundraiser and, in a structure borrowed from the novel, the action is intercut with witness statements that describe our central quartet in wickedly acerbic terms. Jane, for example, is called a “dirty little Prius parked outside a Barney’s” while another Monterey talking head makes the astute observation that “things never blow over once Madeline gets involved, they blow up”.
However, while the script has plenty of fun mocking Madeline, Celeste and the other denizens of Monterey, it also sympathises with them, each main character is humanised through a relatable struggle and these moments are played beautifully by the strong ensemble cast, whether it’s Madeline fretting about losing her “babies” as they grow up, Renata worrying whether anyone in this elite social circle actually likes her or Celeste having to deal with Perry’s angry outbursts.
While nowhere near as starry as Witherspoon or Kidman, the contribution of director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild, The Young Victoria) is vital, he deftly shifts tone and timeline and, in conjunction with his regular DOP Yves Bélanger, brings a distinctive aesthetic to proceedings. Most notably, the camera work is neither steadicam rigid nor handheld jerky, but slightly off centre, occasionally swaying gently as if caught in an ocean breeze.
Vallée’s background in cinema gives Big Little Lies a certain big screen swagger and his mannered style (footprints on the beach and blurred police lights both feature heavily) will no doubt entrance and annoy in equal measure. At its best though, it complements a darkly comic drama of real substance and sucks you into Big Little Lies’ very own vision of twisted suburbia.