“Little Fires Everywhere”–Incendiary at Its Best

Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio during the late 1990s, Little Fires Everywhere is based on Celeste Ng’s best-selling novel by the same name. Reese Witherspoon (Elena)and Kerry Washington (Mia)  steal the show as mothers from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds.  This is a suburban saga with a painfully close lens focused on the income gap, class, and racial divide we know only so well.  In the opening scene  a house in Shaker Heights is engulfed in an inferno.  Is it the target of arson?  We will find out.  The year is 1997.

Shaker Heights’s community ethos prides itself on its civic duty, open and liberal lifestyle, and a desirability that does not include anything unseemly, dangerous or grass exceeding six inches in length.  The unpleasant and the disastrous reside elsewhere.  The community’s bubble is impenetrable…until it isn’t.

Elena Richardson is a smart, highly educated suburban mother and Shaker Heights reporter who is also a perfectionist.  Problem is that one of her four teenage children does not meet her expectations, no matter how low the bar she begrudgingly sets for Isabelle (Izzy), her youngest.  The mother and daughter are toxic:  opposing forces of nature. Elena is a narcissist, so the kids are self-reflecting objects … little trophy children, all about what others think.  Izzy doesnt play Elena’s game  and, in return, Elena seems incapable of any love or empathy for her.

Mia is a very talented artist but she can be overly protective and possessive about her teenage daughter Pearl.  And Elena believes she is in control of her kids and her life, but she really knows very little about  her children.  Neither Elena nor Mia are allowed into their daughters’ worlds and conversely, their daughters do not know them. 

Each mother believes herself to be a good and decent parent because both have structured their lives to shield their daughters from failure.   Yet their sense of self is not challenged.  Both Elena and Mia want a family with strong connections and bonds, but the connecting and dividing are sometimes in the same moment.

Little Fires Everywhere explores motherhood in all its pain, joy and self-denial, cutting to the bone.  Marriage, sexual identity, race and ethnicity are intertwined with the psychology of class and white privilege.

While Shaker Heights self-congratulatory residents believe they say all the correct things about race, their feelings of  superiority are subconsciously ingrained– in the way only wealthy white folks can be. The thing about whiteness is, of course, if you’re not white, you know whiteness and the rules of whiteness better than white people do, because you have to co-exist.   

There is no stammering and flailing in Little Fires Everywhere. Perhaps more than any other scene,  we see, in the final moments,   the human effort to want to get something right even after everything has gone wrong.  The dialog, acting and pacing are extraordinary. Witherspoon and Washington are at their best.

Note:  Available on Hulu streaming.  And for a fascinating interview with the author, Celeste Ng, on the book-to-screen adaptation, see the LA Times article.

“Blow the Man Down”–Maine Down Under

Premiering at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, Blow the Man Down   is  a film debut by writer-directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy. It opens in Easter Cove, a small parochial fishing village along the coast of Maine, in a somewhat clichéd but contemporary riff on “Murder She Wrote”.

 We see a history of covering up secrets by the small town’s residents.  And we listen to a chorus of fishermen sing “blow the man down” –referring to the shoving of a man to the bottom of a boat, either accidentally or on purpose.  And that is where the seemingly simple story begins.

The town’s fish market owner is dead, leaving behind a debt-ridden shop, a house in foreclosure, hospital bills, and two twenty-something daughters with very different expectations: Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor). Priscilla stayed in Easter Cove while the more rebellious Mary Beth went away to college. She reluctantly  returned home when their mom got sick. Both Mary Beth and Priscilla have now had their  dreams derailed.

The deceased mother’s three AARP-age friends gather to remember cherished details of their relationship with her: Suze (June Squibb), Doreen (Marceline Hugot) and Gail (Annette O’Toole). Not present is Enid (Margo Martindale), which seems curious but, as we learn later, not unexpected.

Is Blow the Man Down going to be a cozy mystery with a comfy feeling about a sweet little threesome of elderly women who like to have tea and gossip? Just a simple story with everything on a straight line until the end?  Easter Cove almost immediately turns claustrophobic. Another reminder we are in “Murder She Wrote” territory.  Three murders take place within a week.

Blow the Man Down  is about sisterhood and the lengths to which sisters will go for each other, even when their better instincts say they shouldn’t.  Easter Cove is filled with women, young and old, who have their own dark secrets in a circle of superficially friendly grit and darker compromises.

In an early scene a man chases a screaming young woman through the snow as Enid coldly watches through the window.  We wonder who she is watching and why Enid is not responding to the young woman’s obvious fight for her life.

Saylor and Lowe are amusing in their depictions of desperation and cluelessness, occasionally reminiscent of Woody Allen and the Coen brothers.  And although the two major characters are the young millennial sisters, it is the babyboomer females who hold the screen.  Margo Martindale (of “The Americans” and “Justified” among others) is a quiet scream as  Enid, the protagonist-snake who is the source for the community’s original sin. And June Squibb (who, in “Nebraska”, memorably straddles over a former boyfriend’s grave and mocks his spirit with “See what you could have had”) is  delightful as the town’s action-oriented matron who turns out to be more than the white-haired old biddy the viewer is expecting. Locals always take care of their own.

The acting is solid, the plot perhaps lacking backstory in character development, but the cinematography capturing the foggy and salty experience of fish guts and turbulent waters evokes Maine’s rugged yet insular coastal villages.  Close-ups of a fish-gutting knife and a Sisters’ brand pancake box alongside ocean waves, –lots of ocean waves–underscores the tone…and humor.

Eminently watchable during these sequestered, streamable times.

Note:  Available on Amazon Prime (original series).

Last Days of Vietnam– The Best and Worst of Us

Last Days of Vietnam (2015), a PBS documentary in the American Experience television series, is produced and directed by Rory Kennedy, and was a 2015 Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature.

Forty-five years ago–on April 29, 1975-the US war ceased in South Vietnam. As North Vietnamese army tanks and troops moved into Saigon, the US ambassador fiercely resisted an evacuation.   But a large number of   U.S. diplomats and military operatives argued for an orderly withdrawal.  With no congressional support, the White House ordered American citizens to be evacuated. The order placed the lives of thousands of South Vietnamese at risk.  US military and government officials on the ground in Saigon faced an impossible decision:  which loyal Vietnamese would leave and who would stay behind to face brutality, imprisonment, or death? Whether to obey White House orders to evacuate U.S. citizens only–or to risk treason and save the lives of  some South Vietnamese citizens (some of whom were family members through marriage)–becomes the major theme of Last Days of Vietnam.

President Ford considered withdrawal, but was refused the budget to support the winding down of the war by Congress, some of whom, along with the Ambasador to Vietnam,  stubbornly resisted the reality of the US losing a war.  With the city under fire, American officers on the ground found themselves faceing a “double-doom”: whether to follow official policy and evacuate only U.S. citizens and their dependents, or to defy the order and save the men, women and children they had come to value and love in their years in Vietnam. At the risk of their careers and possible court-martial, a handful of soldiers took matters into their own hands. Engaging in unsanctioned and often makeshift operations, they waged a desperate but heroic effort to save as many South Vietnamese lives as possible,

Astonishing footage of the evacuation from Saigon with contemporary recollections from both Vietnamese and Americans who were there, Last Days in Vietnam films horrific scenes  to supplement the iconic image of desperate Vietnamese women, children, and elderly hanging off the roof of the US embassy fighting for their lives  to escape Saigon.  For those of us who remember the iconic and unforgettable photo of civilians hanging off the last departing helicopter, we see even more tragic moments inside that helicopter on the desperate faces of  Vietnamese families and the dejected US soldiers. That an orderly evacuation could have avoided the turmoil adds to this shameful display. There is no appropriate emotional response.

This should be a mandatory requirement for understanding this dark and iniquitous period of US history.

Note: ” The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns is  an essential companion piece to Last Days of Vietnam. [See my February 12, 2018 review]. For a fictional masterpiece that tells of one Vietnamese soldier’s escape from Saigon and subsequent life as an immigrant in the U.S.,  read the wrenching Pulitzer Prize winner, The Sympathizer, by  Viet Thanh Nguyen.

“Ozark” (Season 3): Narcos in Missouri

Ozark has set itself apart as one of Netflix’s most popular original series, and this season, in my humble opinion, is the best. (See my reviews of Season 1 -September 2017) and Season 2-October 2018)

In this third  season, Ozark has book-ended the journey that began with Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) inventing a plan to launder the Navarro cartel’s drug money in the Ozarks  and evolves into the journey of Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) inventing a plan to create legitimate businesses.

The Byrdes have finally broken bad.  In Season One Wendy Byrde is primarily the good Midwestern wife following her husband’s plans, albeit criminal in intent, in order to preserve their marriage and keep their children safe.  Now in Season 3 (hinted at in the finale of Season 2) Wendy takes charge.  Her previous marginality–the repeated subtle agonies of a woman knowing she could do better–is no more.

So, what happens when the entire family goes from white-collar  respectability to all-in involvement in a life of criminal activity?  The teenage son and daughter do not push back as they get caught up in their parents’ duplicity.  Season 3 is  devastating: a  witnessing of a nuclear-family-gone-rogue. 

Moreover, the Byrde family is not the only one that is cursed no matter what direction they face.  The Langmores–particularly Ruth–has fought all her life for agency, for a life that she is in control of.  And the  Snells, the local Ozark family who has grown poppies and weed for generations, wants their former power back.

The major theme is still hopelessness–even as the main characters struggle with their reality, a denial of how extremely wounded they are.  Each Byrde family  member gives up a piece of themselves until  there is not much remaining to give up.  Each dysfunctional family–Byrde, Langmore, and Snell–is viewed under a psychological microscope:  revealing tortured souls, in ordeals writhing in a house of pain, truth rattling but not being listened to.  Ruth Langmore has few options.  And Darlene Snell is viciously cunning.  We wait for karma  to catch up with her.

Season 3 of Ozark belongs to Laura Linney, who plays the most challenging role:  how to evolve from a mother who is besieged by her husband’s wrongheaded decision to a mastermind of money-laundering for  a Mexican drug dealer.  Jason Bateman is every bit her match, with scenes reminiscent of Ingmar Berman’s classic “Scenes from a Marriage”.  Both chilling and close to home for many viewers!