Little Fires Everywhere

Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon in 'Little Fires Everywhere.' (Photo: DStv)
Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon in 'Little Fires Everywhere.' (Photo: DStv)


4/5 Stars


Little Fires Everywhere follows the picture-perfect Richardson family whose lives are upended when a mother and daughter turn up in their small town. 


Based on the best-selling novel by Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere is a story of motherhood and our perception of what it means to be the perfect mother. Intersected with race and class issues, it is a story of different women as they navigate the terrain of infertility, pregnancy, abortion, and ultimately being a mother through the good times and the bad.

The two lead roles are played by heavyweights of the screen - Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington. Witherspoon plays Elena Richardson, a journalist, who is now the mother of four teenagers. Those familiar with Witherspoon's roles such as Madeline in Big Little Lies, and even Tracy Flick in Election, will see many similarities in this role. But the thing is there is a reason why Witherspoon often plays these types of roles – she is really really good at it.

In many ways, the character of Elena can be seen as a villain. She is antagonistic, she is classist, and she definitely doesn't know how to mind her own business. But there is something in the way that Witherspoon plays the role that makes you want to see her redeemed. And the story definitely wants us to be ambivalent about Elena, as is depicted in flashback scenes where you see her overwhelmed with having four children under the age of four, having to sacrifice her career to be the 'perfect' mother and how she wanted to have an abortion but was told that was not an option for 'women like her.'

Juxtaposed with Elena, is Mia Warren (Kerry Washington). Mia is a single mother and artist, who is constantly travelling to wherever she feels inspired. This means that her daughter, Pearl always has to move schools and make new friends. Mia and Pearl rent a home from Elena, and in so intertwine themselves into the Richardson's lives. Pearl becomes close friends with Elena's son Moody, and she idolises Elena's oldest daughter, Lexie, while having a crush on Elena's son Trip.

Washington's portrayal of Mia is vulnerable, rough and has you constantly on edge. You know that she is hiding something, but you don't know what. And every movement, every facial expression, every word that comes out of her mouth seems to signify that Mia is carrying a weight on her shoulders. It isn't until much later that we discover what it is, but there is no doubt that Kerry Washington threw her all into this role. She became Mia and seemed to embody this character who has experienced so much loss, pain and fear, but is also led by so much guilt for what she has done.

Mia isn't a clear-cut 'good guy', she lies, she steals, and she has a shifty and private quality to her, which makes it hard to root for her. But when she becomes vulnerable – especially in scenes with her daughter, Pearl and Elena's youngest daughter, Izzy – you see that she is someone who has been hardened by the world but hasn't let that deter her from who she is at her core.

The relationship between Elena and Mia starts off as cordial, with Elena trying to help Mia and Mia being wary of her. This escalates when each takes sides in the May Ling trial between a birth mother and an adopted mother. The chemistry between the two leads is electric, and the strength in both of their roles makes them worthy adversaries. But at times, it could seem a little bit like a soap opera, that these women are so obsessed with each. Mia accepts a job as being the Richardsons' maid just so that she can keep an eye on Elena's relationship with Pearl, and Elena is constantly investigating into Mia's life.

Adding to the soap drama, are the teenagers. Even though the lives of the teenagers are seen as a direct consequence of both women's parenting, at times, it seemed as they were part of different show altogether. From Moody's unrequited crush on Pearl to Pearl's crush on Trip. And then there is Lexie and her boyfriend, Brian who are having relationship struggles, and Izzy who is starting high school while being bullied for being lesbian. It's a lot. But it's also the storylines that I found myself most interested in.

The Richardson children are all dealing with their mother's demand for them to be perfect in different ways, while Lexie leans into it, Izzy vehemently rejects it. For Pearl, the Richardsons and Elena, especially, is the family that she's always wanted, the picture-perfect, not wanting for anything, ideal home. Whereas for Izzy, Mia is the mother that she always wished she had - artistic, vulnerable, and welcoming.

Even though Reese and Kerry are excellent in the series, in my opinion, it's the actors who play their daughters that steal the show. Both Lexi Underwood as Pearl and Megan Stott as Izzy are so raw and convincing as two teenagers trying to find their place in the world and in their family.

The subplot of the miniseries is the drama surrounding the court case between Elena's best friend and her husband, the McCulloughs versus the birth mother of their child, Bebe, who is Mia's coworker. This opens up many questions about what makes someone a good mother. Is it the mother that can buy everything that you desire and makes you want for nothing? Is it the mother that gives you her undivided attention? The mother that births you?

Little Fires Everywhere goes even further to explore how issues such as race and class factors in what is considered to be a good mother. Elena is a poster child of what society thinks a good mother is, she is successful, has a dedicated husband, is hardworking, and she provides everything that her children want. Whereas Mia is more spontaneous, she lives by her own rules, and only focuses on what Pearl needs. Whereas Bebe and Mia are constantly facing judgements and consequences of their parenting mistakes, it is only in the final episode that the privileged characters like the Richardsons and the McCulloughs seem to get their comeuppance.

The ending of Little Fires Everywhere differs from the book, but it seems true to the path that the series was on. There were also many threads that were left untied, and many questions that were not answered. Where was Izzy going? Would Pearl ever get to meet her father? Where would the Richardsons live? Does this mean they intend to leave the door open for a season 2?

The heightened drama and the soap opera-y twists of Little Fires Everywhere did what it intended to do, it hooked me and kept me glued to the screen wanting to devour more information about these two families. I cried with Izzy, I worried about Mia, and I got frustrated with Elena. Even more than that, it tells an important story about what being a mother is, which is an undefined, ever-changing role that differs from person to person. And to judge someone from the lens of our own privilege does not only stunt them but ourselves as well.



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