While the showier performances by Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern in Big Little Lies are dominating all the commentary and awards soothsaying around the show, it’s Shailene Woodley’s character Jane who is the soul of the series, the most relatable among a throng of super women.
Jane is the mysterious new mom at Otter Bay Elementary School in Monterey, the youngest of the moms—late 20s compared to their 40s— a Millennial to their Gen X. She’s also the least well-off. In the first episode, she’s mistaken for a nanny. “Jane is not a nanny, she's a mom! She's young. Like you used to be?” snaps Queen Bee Madeline (Witherspoon) when another blond goddess, Renata (Dern), makes the mistake.
Madeline had bonded with Jane just hours before, in a chance meeting when Madeline tripped on the way to dropping off their kids at school. Jane and her son Ziggy, at his urging, pulled over to see if she was alright. Madeline, who has a sixth sense for these things, instantly recognizes in Jane a kind person, an aberration from the other bully mommies in the playground. They form a bond that'll set in motion a series of dramas to come (though Renata would have you believe she was the show's leading catalyst). Or, as one of the police witnesses says ominously in the first episode, "It's possible that if she had not fallen nobody would have gotten killed."
That details of that initial accident raised all sorts of questions about Jane and Ziggy's characters: Who are they? Are they good people? Excruciatingly, it’s a question that Jane has to even ask even of herself. Am I capable of being a good mother? Is my son a good person? This is all made more complicated by the fact that Ziggy is the product of a rape. Am I damaged? Jane seems to ask herself. Is my son like his father? Is it nature or nurture that will shape who he becomes?
The rape itself is cleverly depicted by director Jean-Marc Vallée in fragments, reality perhaps mixed with imagination, and Jane is shown watching herself from a distance. The editing is echoed by Woodley’s performance, in which flashes in and out of haunted moments from a more grounded sense of care and connection with those around her. For Woodley, it's a career-best performance, self-consciously bridging the gap between the young prodigy in The Fault in Our Stars and the Divergent series and the adult actress clearly coming into her own.
A former child actress herself, Woodley is such a naturalistic and generous performer, that she brings out the best out of Ian Armitage, the preternaturally talented young actor who plays Ziggy. With the other actors, too, Woodley underplays to their bolder gestures—in the second to last episode, when she has a mea culpa moment with Renata, Dern turns down the volume of her Machiavellian performance. Jane also brings out a maternal tendency in Madeline more poignantly than Madeline’s own kids do; she still seems like she needs some mothering herself.
It's a testament to the writing of the character that Jane seems to be figuring out how to be a young parent throughout the course of the show. “I think it’s time we went home for dinner,” Ziggy tells his mom at one point when they’re at the beach. Woodley emits a laugh that's both charming and real, realizing the irony of this little man looking out for them, and the wisdom that is so beyond his years.
In her rumpled outfits and brown paper bag mornings, she is a total contrast to the other women in the show in their perfect Eileen Fisher outfits and sprawling kitchens that would be the envy of Nancy Meyers. Their houses and emotions and dramas are big while Jane’s are small, tender, life-like.
Without her, the series would be a riff on Desperate Housewives of Monterey. It’s Jane, and Woodley’s performance, that brings the series back down to earth.
Related: Read All Our Coverage of __Big Little Lies.
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