Parenting starts as a very difficult but pretty straightforward job: Keep your kids safe, fed, warm, and dry. After about a decade, those same offspring are expressing their own fervent opinions about those basic needs, ready to assume the job of taking care of themselves. Who we thought those children would grow up to be might not match up with what they envision. We may even find it hard to recognize this no-longer-so-little person standing in front of us. The job that consumed us for so many years is about to be over, and some parents have more trouble than others letting go.
This fascinating transitional life stage is explored in-depth in Little Fires Everywhere, Hulu’s new miniseries based on Celeste Ng’s 2017 bestseller. The two mothers at the heart of Little Fires are at opposite ends of the parenting spectrum. Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) commands her four personable teenagers with a stern smile, trying to control every aspect of their lives down to the tartan Keds in the family Christmas picture. Enigmatic newcomer Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) is an artistic free spirit who can’t settle down in one place for too long—to the consternation of her daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood), who’s left on her own for long stretches of time.
Little Fires takes place in 1996 in the planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, where Ng herself grew up in the ’90s. The Richardsons are long-standing Shaker residents, living in a stately familial home and familiar with the town’s many restrictions, like getting fined if your grass grows taller than six inches. By contrast, the Warrens, who decide to rent an apartment from the Richardsons, are nomads and new to the community’s carefully planned neighborhoods. “Shaker was built on the underlying philosophy by the founders that everything can and should be planned to avoid uncertainty and disaster,” Pearl reads from the town welcome packet. Her mother gapes at her, knowing only too well the unforeseen events that can change a life forever: a car crash, an unplanned pregnancy, a disease diagnosis, a sudden death.
It’s the primary difference between the mothers’ parenting styles. Parents may attempt to plan everything to prevent their children from ever experiencing unhappiness, though that goal is ultimately futile. Elena grapples with her youngest child, Izzy (Megan Stott), who, unlike her siblings, refuses to conform to her mother’s stringent standards. “There are rules for a reason, and if you follow them, you’ll succeed,” Elena tells Izzy, succinctly summing up her strict and short-sighted worldview. It’s perhaps no surprise that Izzy finds herself drawn to the laid-back Mia. While Pearl, longing for structure, nestles into the stable confines of the Richardson family. Izzy has every advantage a child could possibly desire, yet is miserable, while Pearl tells her mother that she’s always had everything she needs, but not what she wants.
The mothers themselves are almost immediately entrenched in conflict: First spying Mia and Pearl sleeping in their car, Elena calls the cops, then rents the apartment to them out of guilt after she actually meets them. Mia starts working as a maid in the Richardson home following a condescending invitation from Elena—who prefers the term “house manager”—in an effort to keep a closer eye on her daughter’s new friends. While Elena makes awkward advances toward a friendship with Mia, the overwhelming chasm created by their different levels of privilege keeps the two women at odds. That tension only grows when they find themselves on the opposite sides of a custody conflict: After Mia’s friend Bebe (Lu Huang) abandons her child, Elena’s best friend, Linda (Rosemarie DeWitt), tries to adopt her.
But before the action erupts, Little Fires plods along, to the tune of slowed-down covers of ’90s songs that were already pretty slow to begin with (no one needed a new version of “Sex And Candy”). Both families harbor an element of joylessness: the disconnects among the Richardsons, despite the picture-perfect exterior Elena is committed to presenting to the world; the uncertain future of the financially insecure Warrens. Except for the effervescent Pearl, the kids don’t help much; one of Elena’s kids is even named Moody (Gavin Lewis). But the non-musical ’90s anachronisms are entertaining (“I’m over my minutes,” Elena tells her friend while talking into her car phone), and Joshua Jackson is reliably solid as Elena’s husband, Bill, who just wants peace in his house and his wife to be happy. But it’s unclear whether that’s even possible: Witherspoon bravely tosses aside her Elle Woods-ian likability to become the righteous and ultimately menacing Elena, who apparently wants to be a force for good, but has no idea how far afield she is. Witherspoon has a solid match in Washington, whose Mia adopts a close-lipped, seldom smiling facade that belies her strength and simmering rage beneath.
Once Little Fires kicks into gear after the first few episodes, it’s a joy to see these two fiercely talented actors face off, as the mothers’ conflict unfurls a variety of ideas about what it means to raise children. The court battle debates whether Linda can be the baby’s mother when her birth mother is still around. Mia and Pearl’s mysterious backstory contains a similar tale of nature over nurture. But while Elena’s daughter Lexi (Jade Pettyjohn) is practically her clone (and has inherited many of her wrong-headed philosophies as well), Izzy and Elena remain at odds, with ultimately tragic results. Little Fires Everywhere offers an at-times fascinating exploration of parenting, privilege, motherhood, even womanhood, but its overall message is clear: Eventually, parents just have to let go.