Little Fires Everywhere review: Reese Witherspoon's miniseries ruminates on motherhood, racism and class

Based on Celeste Ng's novel of the same name, Little Fires Everywhere revolves around two families in Shaker Heights — the Richardsons and the Warrens

Pratishruti Ganguly April 29, 2020 08:02:22 IST
Little Fires Everywhere review: Reese Witherspoon's miniseries ruminates on motherhood, racism and class

English

There are an innumerable number of times when the eight-episode miniseries Little Fires Everywhere, streaming on Hotstar in India, will remind you of Big Little Lies. Both the shows are set in an idyllic hamlet; both fashion Reese Witherspoon as a self-styled micromanager;  and both have a mystery at its core. Here, the show begins with the Richardson house on fire.

But Little Fires Everywhere is not just a spiritual sequel to the hit HBO drama. In a significant moment in the series, a character reminds another that a poor, illegal Chinese immigrant has absolutely no chance at winning a court case against a rich white family. His emphasis on never is incisive, much like the series that discusses everything — from motherhood, race, identity, systemic marginalisation to armchair activism.

Little Fires Everywhere review Reese Witherspoons miniseries ruminates on motherhood racism and class

Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington in Little Fires Everywhere

Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, in 1997,  Little Fires Everywhere is centred on two families — the Richardsons and the Warrens. The Richardsons — Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon), a part-time journalist, her lawyer husband Bill (Joshua Jackson) and her four teenager children Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), Izzy (Megan Scott), Moody (Gavin Lewis) and Trip (Jordan Elsass) — is the poster-family of priviledge and suburban utopia.

On the other hand are the Warrens. Bouncing from stop to stop in search of a home, Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) and her daughter Pearl "have everything they need but never what they want." They sustain on leftover Chinese takeouts from the restaurant Mia works at, and scourge for scraps to forge something akin to a bicycle.

Little Fires Everywhere review Reese Witherspoons miniseries ruminates on motherhood racism and class

Elena employs Mia as her 'housekeeper'

Their lives collide when Elena, the token white saviour you learnt about in your postcolonial lectures, rents her house out to the Warrens. She's casually dismissive of Warren's job as an artist. She offers a job to Mia as a maid in her house, but is careful enough to term it "housekeeping."

But where the matriarchs judge each other on their lifestyle choices and their abilities of motherhood, the children find solace in the other mother's arms. Pearl, who has had to lead a nomadic and austere life, is drawn to the stability and material pleasures available in Elena's household. Meanwhile, "troubled teen" Izzy, frustrated with her mother's obsession with cosmetic appearances, is charmed by the pot-smoking, bohemian Mia. Bullied in school by her peers for not being girly enough, Izzy's sense of self-expression comes to the fore as rebellion. Her only confidante in her house is her father, who advises her to stifle her individuality to maintain the familiar status-quo.

Little Fires Everywhere review Reese Witherspoons miniseries ruminates on motherhood racism and class

Moody (left), Pearl (centre) and Trip

Shuttling between the past and present, Little Fires Everywhere proceeds to uncover every dirty, unpleasant truth that Elena had carefully shoved under the carpet. Her other children, Lexie and Trip — are the popular kids at school, masking their condescension behind affable smiles. Lexie has a black boyfriend; as if to adhere to the supposed black-and-white integrated ecosystem that Shaker Heights proudly advertises. However, she also steals Pearl's essay on her black experience to submit to Yale University, because she "doesn't really have any struggles of her own." Moody is the underdog who nestled a secret crush on the dynamic Pearl. But Pearl is attracted to the charming, even if shallow, Trip.

But the nuanced interpersonal dynamics slowly dissipate to make room for a categorical, albeit broad-stroke mediation on whether motherhood is only for haves and not for the have-nots — with a custody battle. Mia extends her support to her colleague Bebe (Huang Lu), a financially struggling undocumented Chinese immigrant, who in a desperate moment, deserted her new-born at a fire station, hoping someone would take her in and be able to feed her. Elena, on the other hand, fiercely advocates for her childless friend (Rosemarie DeWitt), who has cared for the infant for months and now in waiting for the adoption process to be finalised. Even as the duo furiously champion their sides, the narrative escapes the grey territory to vilify one and lionise the other.

Little Fires Everywhere review Reese Witherspoons miniseries ruminates on motherhood racism and class

This is where Little Fires Everywhere transitions into soapy melodrama. The monologues on maternal anguish, the snide remarks, and the eyerolls land with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Notwithstanding its occasional dip into the hokey theatrics, Little Fires Everywhere delves into how choice itself comes from a place of entitlement. It exposes how many-a-challenges of motherhood are alleviated because of racial and class priviledges, making it a smoother sail, even if not an entirely smooth sail.

Rating: ***1/2

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