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.