Emmy spotlight: Shailene Woodley (‘Big Little Lies’) stands out in an excellent ensemble cast

Big Little Lies” wrapped up its story on Sunday night, April 2, after seven episodes of mystery and intrigue in the posh community of Monterey, California. The acclaimed miniseries was based on a novel of the same name by author Liane Moriarty, and it boasted heavy-hitting talent in front of the camera and behind, but through it all I find myself most hoping for recognition for Shailene Woodley.

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Make no mistake, Woodley is a heavy-hitter in her own right. At just 25-years-old she’s already a Golden Globe nominee, SAG nominee, and Independent Spirit Award winner for her breakthrough supporting role in “The Descendants” (2011). She’s also a three-time Critics’ Choice nominee, the Chopard Trophy winner for Female Revelation at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, a Special Jury Prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival for her performance in “The Spectacular Now” (2013) and the headliner of the “Divergent” film series (2014-2016). But even with that resume she might have gotten lost in the shuffle alongside Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, as well as Oscar nominee Laura Dern.

She certainly holds her own in such company, but she also does more than that. In important ways she grounds the entire story. Her co-stars give showier performances — Witherspoon as a high-strung, competitive mother of two, Kidman as a victim of spousal abuse, Dern as a fiercely protective career woman — but Woodley is the audience’s entry point. She plays Jane Chapman, a single mother who is new to the high-pressure world of affluent Monterey moms. Through her we get an outsider’s perspective of this highly charged world of play dates and fundraisers.

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But she’s no mere observer. Jane has secrets and conflicts of her own. On his first day of school, her son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) is accused of bullying a fellow student and becomes ostracized. Jane is also harboring a secret about his parentage, which she first reveals to Witherspoon’s character, Madeline, in a powerful, understated monologue: Ziggy was conceived when Jane was raped. She copes with these issues much differently than her more outgoing peers might: she goes inward, and Woodley’s restrained performance always shows Jane thinking and processing, wondering if she belongs or if she even wants to. She’s the youngest actress in the core cast, but she expresses the most world-weariness.

But Jane’s relationship with her son is also the most full of hope. For years it seems to have been just them against the world, and he has become the silver lining of her every cloud. But after he’s accused of assault, Woodley shows us the heartbreaking doubts of a mother who believes her son when he says he is innocent and vigorously defends him, but wonders in the back of her mind if maybe he has inherited his father’s violence. In early episodes Woodley watches the boy with questions and fear in her eyes, so it’s especially powerful in a later episode when she gets good news from a child psychologist. While her emotions remain subdued in that scene she clearly articulates a wave of emotions with just the expressions on her face: vindication, love, and relief that her son really is who she has always believed him to be.

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Critic Alan Sepinwall (UPROXX) called Woodley’s performance “superb … every bit her more seasoned co-stars’ equal, functioning as the emotional center of the story.” Added Ben Travers (IndieWire), “Woodley is measured in her emotional output, crossing a wide spectrum but full of youthful purity that perfectly contrasts Madeline’s constant scheming.” Matt Zoller Seitz (Vulture) explained, “Woodley and Kidman have quieter, subtler roles that are more about hiding than revealing emotion, but they’re as impressive as the others.”

Woodley is arguably a co-lead alongside top-billed Kidman and Witherspoon, but it’s possible HBO will enter her for Best Movie/Mini Supporting Actress to avoid dividing support three ways in the Best Actress contest. Either way she deserves at least a nomination, and she had just the right writer and director to get her one. All seven episodes were helmed by Jean-Marc Vallee, who won Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto acting Oscars for “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013) and earned Oscar noms for Witherspoon and Dern in “Wild” (2014). But that’s nothing compared to writer David E. Kelley‘s Emmy track record. His shows, including “L.A. Law,” “Picket Fences,” “The Practice,” “Ally McBeal” and “Boston Legal,” have won dozens of acting Emmys, so if there’s one man whose dialogue you should read if you want to win awards, it’s him.

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