Big Little Lies – television at its very best

If you haven’t watched Big Little Lies already you probably should. No, seriously. Stop reading this now and watch it. Now. Do it right now.

Big Little Lies‘ perfection begins with Jean-Marc Vallée. The director, celebrated for Dallas Byers Club and Wild, creates moving pictures that are rich in emotional depth and thematically brave. This television mini-series, adapted from Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name, boasts a phenomenal a-list ensemble and welcomes fresh young talent too. It’s a collaborative masterpiece that reads more as a feature-length film than usual series fare, a trait that works in its favour.

Essentially a series of conversations and betrayals amongst a group of women in the picturesque coastal town of Monterey, California, Big Little Lies seats us in a serene paradise that juxtaposes the actions of its people. The lives of five woman unfold over seven episodes as their first-grader children embark on their first year of school. Bullying, domestic abuse, marriage and friendship are all presented to us in brave and bold new ways with an explorative eye and level of intricacy perhaps unseen before.

Whether it’s in the knowing looks shared between two friends, or the layered and fragmented relationships seen between four married couples, writer David E. Kelley and his director Vallée explore the exasperation and tribulations these mothers feel and the secret brutality of their apparently perfect world as it crumbles around them. Much of the narrative focuses on Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Perry ( Alexander Skarsgård). At first this pair seem blissfully – and passionately – happy in their million-dollar home by the sea with two cute-as-a-button boys. This facade is quickly shattered by the realisation that they share a dark secret; Perry is a violent and psychotic husband who frequently beats Celeste, repenting with flowers and expensive jewellery. The abuse escalates as the series goes on and these scenes, directed with an uncomfortably intimate lens, depict domestic abuse in an unnerving and realistic plot-thread that works to remind us that this is a deadly serious (and often silent) issue in society.

The total isolation of Kidman’s Celeste is portrayed in aching moments of sadness in a doctor’s office and her inability to acknowledge the depth of her martial situation effectively points to the stigma surrounding physical abuse behind closed doors. Celeste isn’t weak, in fact she’s an accomplished lawyer, loving mother, and friend-to-all who is slowly losing sight of her self as her controlling husband tightens his psychological grip. Kidman and Skarsgård are both revelations here, particularly the latter, as he showcases what broad talent he really does have under his fluffy cinematic roles, while fearlessly embodying Perry and his brewing malevolence. The scenes shared between the two aren’t an easy watch but this serves a bruising, thought-provoking purpose.

Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies.

While the series is an ensemble piece, Reese Witherspoon often takes lead. The Oscar-winning actress is a sensation as Madeleine; intelligent, cutting, sharp, self-aware and, actually, a champion of what it means to be a mother and a woman. She is flawed and imperfect, while from the outside perspective of fellow parents she appears to define what it is to be an upper class woman in contemporary America, she’s perhaps the most complex character in the story we see. Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern also star, each battling their own demons in the confines of Monterey. The location becomes a character too which, despite its aesthetic beauty, is rammed with ugly secrets.

The seven episodes are accompanied by an emotive soundtrack which includes Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young and Leon Bridges that serves the narrative so well, it’s a treat on the ears while the show itself is often tremendously tough on the eyes. Each episode escalates in its many engimas while questions are slowly answered and secrets unveiled, before the final You Get What You Need ties up loose ends. This cathartic episode represents the unbreakfable bond between women and their utterly inimitable strength too.

Big Littles Lies is an incredible landmark in contemporary television. I would say it’s a rare example of what the small screen can achieve, but I hope it will be one of many sharp, witty and significant pieces of art to come that shouldn’t – and surely won’t – be forgotten. This is flawless drama at its honest best.

The Spectacular Now, review

Often you will stumble upon a film, watch the trailer and think ‘Yeah, let’s give that a go, it looks decent.‘ Only occasionally will that stumbled upon piece of cinema be a game-changer. A think about your life feature that has you in tears, for reasons beyond what you have just seen on screen. Said film, in this case, and as the title indicates is The Spectacular Now. Released in 2013 and shot on a humble budget of $2.5 million, James Ponsoldt’s film hits you straight in the feels. Those feels, are real. The power of Miles Teller as eighteen year old Sutter Keely is almost indescribable and his transition from adolescence to adulthood is incredibly poignant. Shailene Woodley, while not as central to the narrative as one might think is just a great force and wonderfully likeable as Aimee Finecky who has a glorious lust for life and is adamant to see only the good in Sutter.

Firstly, Ponsoldt directs Woodley and Teller with such a loving eye, but one that never enters cliched romantic-drama territory. This story feels one hundred percent real, what you are watching is not a glorified over-exaggeration of made up relationships  but a fictional portrayal of a relatable partnership. Intimate scenes are not covered up by a non-diegetic acoustic soundtrack, refreshingly they focus on the event unfolding and viewers will be transported back to a time when they felt just like that. The romantic element never takes over from what is at the centre here – Sutter‘s reluctance to graduate high school entwined with the surreal image he carries of his absent Father and obvious commitment issues. Oh, and the underlying drinking habit which the audience are reminded of in almost every scene. Sutter comes with baggage (which is initially hidden), but we can deal with that. What unwinds in the 95 minutes is a story of revelations, a little heartache, and a look into this teenagers life who – come the end – is no longer just a character in a film.

promotional poster for the spectacular now

promotional poster for the spectacular now

Teller narrates the film at appropriate intervals and Ponsoldt gives us a swiftly edited, genuinely funny opening scene which paints a clear picture of the situation we are going into. Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber the screenplay is written with enough quirk to comfortably fit within an indie production but screams out with intelligence and sharp wit which is often missed in contemporary cinema. There are so many positives to this inspiring feature, which will genuinely have an impact on you, but to truly understand why this is possibly one of the best films you will ever see – you just have to sit your bum down and watch for yourself. Rather magnificently, The Spectacular Now will hold different meanings for each individual viewing, and that power is something to be applauded.

A domestic story (to a certain extent at least), Ponsoldt’s film captures the wonderment and difficulties of growing up. A beautifully told story that deserves to be watched time and again. Damn near perfect.