‘Big Little Lies’ Has a Secret to Success

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Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and director Jean-Marc Vallée elevate the material to new heights.

Image: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / HBO

HBO has long been considered the home for Hollywood stars to make a splash on the small screen. Miniseries give high profile directors and actors an opportunity to create something a little longer than a typical movie, while still maintaining a significant level of quality and control throughout. Reese Witherspoon has now teamed up with Director Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club) once again to adapt Big Little Lies, the Liane Moriarty novel about upper-class families power struggles. The world certainly doesn’t need another drama about wealthy individuals, but with actresses this good involved, this adaptation takes the ‘chick-lit’ novel to another level.

Reese Witherspoon and her producing partner Bruna Papandrea optioned Big Little Lies, and quickly brought Nicole Kidman in according to The Hollywood Reporter. It was originally conceived as a feature film, but then was molded into what is now a HBO miniseries. Witherspoon loved the material that was based on three mothers (Witherspoon, Kidman, and Shailene Woodley) who have children in the same kindergarten class. There is an overshadowing horror, since a murder has occurred during parents night during a school fundraiser. Interviews with those at the function are interlaced with the events leading up to the murder. This adds a little more gravitas to the fighting between the women; we know that this will end in bloodshed.

Image: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / HBO

There’s obviously not a ton of feature films being made that focus on issues pertaining to women, especially women over the age of 40. Most of the time they are subjugated to supporting roles as mothers or even grandmothers by that point. The women of Big Little Lies are unquestionably the stars of the show. Witherspoon said she had a laser-like focus on scripts that brought women to the forefront and Big Little Lies had exactly what she was looking for. Just for example take a look at the five leading ladies in Big Little Lies; Witherspoon, Kidman, Woodley, Laura Dern, and Zoë Kravitz. There are few productions that have that kind of female star power behind them. Any of these roles would be sought after by actresses given the complexity of the characters.

Image: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / HBO

It’s kind of amazing to learn Reese Witherspoon didn’t pick out the role of Madeline for herself. There are essentially three leading roles in the show; Madeline, Celeste, and Jane. According to Variety, she didn’t see herself as the helicopter mom type. This is easily the best match of the entire show however, as Witherspoon delves right into the role and gives a performance that might be equal to her two previously acclaimed performances in Walk the Line and Wild. Madeline needs to always have events go her way and she has a lot of influence over the community. Nicole Kidman also has a pretty complex role as Celeste, a stay-at-home mom who misses her career and who is faced with domestic abuse constantly. The relationship is volatile, but there are times when she just seems to go with it that are utterly horrifying.

You would never imagine the competitive atmosphere that exists to be “best mom”, but Big Little Lies shows just how far these women are willing to go. One of the earlier issues arise when Jane Chapman’s (Woodley) son is blamed with choking another little girl. This all happens during orientation for first grade, so even then, battle lines are established.

Image: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / HBO

What makes Big Little Lies even more exciting is that Jean-Marc Vallée directs the entire mini-series. Ever since Dallas Buyers Club, he has been a director that demands attention. The film about Ron Woodroof, a Texas electrician diagnosed with AIDS who then begins smuggling drugs to treat his illness, earned six Academy Award nominations including best picture. It would go on receive awards for the acting performances of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. He would then work with Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern in Wild. Wild told the real story of Cheryl Strayed, a woman who traveled 1,100 miles on a journey of self-discovery and healing. Wild managed to earn acting nominations for both Witherspoon and Dern. Vallée would direct one more film, Demolition, before working with Witherspoon to bring Big Little Lies to HBO. That Witherspoon and Dern once played daughter and mother in Wild and are now bitter rivals is an interesting coincidence of casting. Even though Witherspoon and Vallee don’t have something lined up after Big Little Lies, she told Variety that she plans to find one.

There’s no shortage of A-list talent making their way to television. It is all about what will make the big money and stories about older women struggling with their lives, responsibilities, and marriages rarely get made in Hollywood. Witherspoon and Kidman have now made their first miniseries for HBO and if they will be the home to shows of this nature, then expect many other women to follow suit. This level of talent and production is typically reserved for the big screen, but Big Little Lies delivers the goods of a power struggle between high-society women; juggling their careers, children, and ‘challenging’ marriages.

News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.