You think you’ve got mother-daughter problems – but no! Aimless 30-year-old Andy Oliver (Bella Heathcoate), who shelved her New York dreams to return to small-town Georgia to nurse her mother, Laura Oliver (Toni Collette), through breast cancer, appears at first to have the usual issues. Post-op Laura pushes her daughter to leave the nest again and become an autonomous adult, and mopey stuck-in-a-rut aspiring artist Andy resists. Par for the course.
What upends it all? To celebrate Andy’s 30th birthday, Laura takes her out to lunch and a new round of nagging when all hell breaks loose. In a bravura set piece that recalls the crazy museum bombing that launches Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch,” a spurned boyfriend enters the mall restaurant, shoots his ex-girlfriend who’s leaving him for med school and keeps firing. Blood simple, he targets Andy, who’s wearing her police uniform from her night job answering 911 calls. Unexpectedly, Laura goes into overdrive – and slices down the shooter as if she were a Navy SEAL.
Wait? What? In this female-driven thriller based on my favorite novel by international bestseller Karin Slaughter, and brought to the screen by “Big Little Lies’” Bruna Papandrea and showrunner Charlotte Stoudt, Laura’s shocking maneuver to protect her daughter changes the equation. While the publicity makes the mother a public hero, it also triggers brutal contemporary consequences for her violent hidden past. Over eight 45-minute episodes, and three timelines, the audience discovers who Laura really is, a story that winds through her association with domestic terrorists all the way back to her wealthy mother and domineering father in San Francisco. The fallout forces Andy into independent action and the adulthood she’s been avoiding.
Collette, who’s been turning out unvarnished performances since her 1994 “Muriel’s Wedding” debut, is top-notch here. Her Laura is a woman who’s traded her identity so many times over the years – daughter, mother, lover, healer and rebel – that her emotional response has become pushing others away so that they won’t discover the core secrets that have mangled her sense of self.
Heathcoate, downplaying her drop-dead model looks with two-toned stringy hair, embodies the adrift and searching Andy. Part of her identity problem, Andy gradually comes to learn, stems from her mother’s lack of candor. Who are you when you discover everything you know about your family is a lie? The supporting cast is consistently strong and diverse: Omari Hardwick, Gil Birmingham, Jessica Barden and a very Charlie Manson-style Joe Dempsie.
Rather than the glossy, aspirational look of “Pretty Little Lies,” with its real estate porn and competitive yummy mummies, “Pieces of Her” stays true to its red-earthy Georgia roots. It’s not quite “Mare of Easttown” glum, given the sunshine and green fields of the Peach State. And the rock-infused soundtrack by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans adds to the strong sense of place.
With women’s fiction being adapted to screens big and small, we’ve seen an explosion of portraits of imperfect motherhood: from the competitive mothers of Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” to the conflicted academic at the center of Elena Ferrante’s “The Lost Daughter.” Thanks to Slaughter, and realized for the screen by Papandrea and crew, the perfectly titled “Pieces of Her” provides an emotionally complex, twisted tale of mother-daughter relations in the crucible of generational trauma. Few relationships are more intimate than that between a mother and a daughter – cue the flashback of Andy bathing a nude Laura during mom’s mastectomy recovery. And, yet, the drama acknowledges how little we ever really know about our mothers – even those who lacked such incendiary pasts.
As all the parts fuse, “Pieces of Her” delivers a gripping murder mystery, fully realized for television, that leaves audiences guessing until the very last scenes.
“Pieces of Her” debuts on Netflix on March 4.