Toni Collette is superb in mother-daughter thriller Pieces of Her

Pieces of Her, Netflix

There are at least two Pieces of Her: one is a convoluted but more-or-less conventional mystery thriller with interweaving timelines; the other is an uncommonly well-played depiction of an uncomfortable mother-daughter relationship built on deception and love in more or less equal amounts.

Toni Collette is central to both and is absolutely superb. Bella Heathcote is equally involved, and though her character has much less complex material to work with, she’s terrific too.

Toni Collette is superb as a woman who has hidden her true identity from everyone, including her own daughter.Credit:Netflix/Mark Rogers

Plot-wise it’s hard to say much about Pieces of Her because it unfolds as a series of twists and reveals. Let’s just say that Collette’s Laura Oliver, a speech pathologist in the small coastal town of Belle Isle, Georgia, has an interesting backstory that helps explain why, when a gunman kills a bunch of people in a cafe and then threatens her daughter Andy (Heathcote), who is in police uniform even though she just answers emergency calls, she responds with deadly force.

That backstory is set in the 1980s and involves Leftist militants motivated by a horror of all things Reagan. To my mind, this detail – or rather, lack of it – helps explain why the eight-part series is decent enough fare without quite excelling.

Although he was lionised upon his death for supposedly ending the Cold War, Reagan is remembered by many as the man who threatened to turn that war hot.

Ronald Reagan looms as a figure of hate in the series, but what he represented to the Left is never really explored.Credit:Netflix

The early 1980s was a time of persistent, imminent terror, when the US President’s finger hovered over the red button of nuclear armageddon, just waiting for God to whisper “push it” in his ear. The AIDS epidemic, meanwhile, he appeared to view as divine punishment for sins of the flesh.

A little acknowledgement of this and the Leftist cause in Pieces of Her might have played as well-founded if misguided in its embrace of violence. Instead, it is merely deployed as a confusing, if propulsive, plot device.

Jessica Barden plays the younger version of Collette’s character. She’s decent, in a sullen way, but doesn’t much look like Collette and stands a good six inches shorter than her. Luckily, the character’s love interest is played by Joe Dempsie, an English actor who stands a good six inches shorter than Aaron Jeffery, the New Zealander who plays the same character in the present day. At least they’re in proportion, right?

Bella Heathcote as Andy, a young woman whose uncertainty about herself maybe owes something to her mother’s secrecy.Credit:Netflix

At the heart of Pieces of Her – which was produced by Bruna Papandrea and Steve Hutensky’s Made-Up Stories (Big Little Lies, Nine Perfect Strangers, The Undoing) and shot in and around Sydney, which doubles for Georgia, Alabama, Maine and San Francisco – is the notion that a mother’s instinct to protect her child can do unforeseen damage.

By hiding her true identity, Laura has kept enormously significant parts of herself locked away, and denied Andy access to her own birthright. Andy, in turn, is adrift, still struggling at the age of 30 to work out who she is.

Whether that’s a generational curse or a result of her mother’s own issues with identity, the damage is real, and when the truth is revealed, it can’t help but drive them apart.

It’s in the scenes between Collette and Heathcote that Pieces of Her comes alive and rises above the merely generic. The twists and turns will likely keep you interested, but it’s that mother-daughter dynamic that will leave you feeling it was all worthwhile.

Email the author at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin

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