Amidst the manicured lawns and picket-fenced mansions of Shaker Heights, Ohio, a house is engulfed by flames. Its owner, Stepford-esque mother-of-four Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) looks on aghast, as attendant police officers wonder who could possibly have done this to her picture-perfect family. So begins Amazon Prime Video’s new adaptation of Celeste Ng’s 2017 best-seller, Little Fires Everywhere, a seething tale of race, class, and the visceral power of motherhood.
After opening in the ashes of the Richardsons’ story, the plot re-ravels itself, rewinding four months to August 1997, when the coiffured Elena lets her “family rental” to nomadic artist Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), and her teenage daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood). An inveterate do-gooder, Elena is delighted with herself for having come to the rescue of a single mother, and an “African American” one at that. Little does she know that Mia is about to turn the pristine surfaces of her life inside out, and reveal the ugliness lurking beneath.
Pearl, who has never had a permanent home, is enchanted by the comfortable stability of Richardson family life. She soon befriends Elena’s older children, and is willingly swallowed up by her interfering approach to parenting. Meanwhile, Elena’s youngest, most rebellious daughter, Izzy (Megan Stott), who is constantly rebuked by her mother for falling short of her strict standards, is drawn to the openness of Mia’s bohemian lifestyle. As the two households become entangled, Elena, who fancies herself as quite the investigative journalist, grows increasingly curious about Mia’s mysterious past, and begins probing for answers. And when these two matriarchs find themselves on opposing sides of an adoption battle between Elena’s friends, the McCulloughs, and an illegal immigrant mother who was forced to leave her baby outside a fire station, sparks begin to fly.
“Every twist, every bombshell of this gripping adaptation is informed by its characters’ attitudes towards race, wealth and status.”
In one ill-judged attempt at philanthropy, Elena offers Mia a job as a “maid”, no wait, “house-helper”, actually, make that “house manager”, refusing to see the reductive implications of such a proposal. Meanwhile, her eldest daughter, the supposedly “colour-blind” Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), adopts Pearl as a sort of pet, lending herself a feeling of moral superiority while seizing the opportunity to steal Pearl’s experiences of discrimination for her own. And in the struggle for custody of baby May Ling/Mirabelle, the poverty of her mother Bebe (Huang Lu), her immigrant status, and her social isolation, somehow qualify others to deem her less capable of love than the all-American McCulloughs, with their plush house and leisurely lifestyle.
Elena judges Bebe harshly for her decisions, proclaiming righteously that she would never have abandoned her child, and is unmoved when Mia tells her, “you didn’t make good choices, you had good choices. Options, that being rich and white and entitled gave you.” It is in these moments that the series establishes its nuanced, evocative exploration of the silent structures and hierarchies of American society. When Elena reveals her blinkered lack of concern for people like Bebe, she fleetingly exposes the pervasive but subterranean culture of prejudice and dominance that keeps her and her family at the top of the pile.
The many intertwining narrative threads of Little Fires Everywhere are expertly woven together by a highly poetic script, which was written partly by Celeste Ng herself. Its shrewd social commentary is articulated eloquently through considered performances from Witherspoon and Washington, who both conjure the many warring facets of their characters with effortless precision. Their portrayals are complemented beautifully by an impressive supporting cast: Lexi Underwood is radiant in her soulful conjuring of Pearl, and Jade Pettyjohn is sickeningly smug in her depiction of the clueless Lexie.
The suspenseful unfurling of the story is occasionally disrupted by badly-cast flashbacks to Elena and Mia’s younger selves, but this is only a small distraction in what is otherwise a powerful and convincing production.
Words by Emma Morgan