Film

Review: Filmmaker Greta Gerwig Creates A New Classic in Fresh, Delightful Adaptation of Little Women

You may be thinking, for any number of reasons, that a new film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is not a great idea, and therefore you aren’t planning to see Greta Gerwig’s version, arriving in theaters on Christmas Day. Perhaps you hold the book (or previous film versions) so dear, as many do, that it’s hard to imagine this latest one improving on a classic. Perhaps it’s the opposite, and with no particular affinity to the book (or worse, a misplaced belief that the story “isn’t for you”), you’re thinking of seeing something else on the big screen over the holiday.

Allow me to disavow you of these notions entirely: this newest interpretation of the classic story of four sisters growing up in Civil-War era Massachusetts is, simply put, a wonder. Starring a stunning ensemble including Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Louis Garrel, Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep (whew!), writer/director Gerwig creates a film that is at once delightfully modern and fresh yet wholly familiar and nostalgic, thanks in part to a script that expertly disassembles Alcott’s linear narrative and puts the story of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy back together in flashbacks as well as present day, imbuing an essential sense of the passage of time in the family’s lives. The fact that there isn’t a single off performance in the entire ensemble helps, too.

Little Women

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Alcott’s story is beloved for many reasons, but chief among them is because the March sisters, as different from each other as they are, remain relatable and relevant more than 150 years after the author created them. There’s Meg (Watson), the oldest and most pragmatic of her sisters; Jo (Ronan), the fiercely independent aspiring author with imagination to spare; Beth (Scanlen), the fragile musical ingenue who just wants everyone to get along; and Amy (Pugh), the baby of the family trying to keep up with her big sisters. Living with their mother, Marmee (Dern), while their father (Odenkirk) is away fighting the war, the girls create an idyllic life for themselves, days filled with as many adventures and games as they are with chores and charity. Living in a small country cottage, they share their dreams and aspirations with each other in between the sort of sisterly spats anyone with siblings will appreciate. Their closest neighbor is Mr. Laurence (Cooper), who lives in the big mansion nearby with his nephew, Theodore (Chalamet)—whom everyone calls Laurie. All the while, their wealthy old Aunt March (Streep) keeps a close eye on the girls and their upbringing.

Over the course of the film’s 134 minutes (which never once feels too long), we have the privilege of watching these young girls grow into young women, each finding their way in the world to the extent they can, either through circumstances that find them or the force of their own sheer will (or sometimes both). They’ll celebrate the triumphs and weather the trials that come with growing up during wartime; they’ll fall in and out of love, sometimes at the same time; they’ll cling tightly to each other when they need to and fall out when they can’t stand the sight of each other for another minute. As they change and grow, so does the world around them; but always at the center are home, family and the strength that comes from knowing that through it all, you’ll always have a soft place to land.

Gerwig’s sharp script, so precisely crafted that the actors have divulged that even lines spoken over each other as banter were written that way on the page, elevates Alcott’s classic narrative from a parable on virtue and familial bonds to an exploration of ambition and independence, all with a sense of urgency and agency. Jo, Amy and their sisters spend the film navigating how to create space for themselves in a world that, for all intents and purposes, isn’t interested in them. In the film’s opening sequence, some seven years after the events we know best at the March home, Jo marches (no pun intended) into a publisher’s office to submit a story for printing. She fills the room with her energy and presence, as she confidently insists that Mr. Dashwood (a mutton-chopped Tracy Letts, endearing as always) read her work. Immediately, we understand who this Jo is, and more, we understand that she knows who she is, too.

Each of the sisters gets a similar moment, Gerwig deftly ensuring that her characters are multi-dimensional and robust. When Amy is in France studying painting and the language, she earnestly articulates her predicament as a woman of the era, where her wealth, her work, even her children aren’t her own by law. As Jo tries to convince Meg to run away on her wedding day, the oldest March sister, with characteristic wisdom, assures Jo that she wants the life she’s choosing—a husband, a home, a family of her own. Even Beth, though fate has something different in store for her, comes into her own as she grows weaker with illness, serving as a reminder to her sisters (and to us) that everything can go away in an instant and should, therefore, be cherished.

Gerwig’s splendid script is beautifully realized by a troupe of actors so well-suited to their roles that these are likely to become defining performances in each of their careers. Ronan’s Jo is as vulnerable as she is assured; Dern’s gives Marmee a heart so generous it’s only matched by her effortless charm. Streep infuses grand dame Aunt March with a sharp wit and well-earned wisdom, while Chalamet’s Laurie is on as important a journey to find himself as any of the sisters. It’s Pugh, however, who steals the show as Amy. The youngest of the family, we meet her as a simpering, flighty child who yearns to tag along with her older sisters and live a life she imagines to be glamorous and romantic. The evolution of Pugh’s performance is exceptional, as Amy grows into a smart, beautiful young woman who won’t be limited to living a life in her sisters’ shadows. It’s a notable performance in a film filled with them, and Pugh deserves every accolade she receives.

With Ladybird in 2017, Greta Gerwig established herself as a talented writer and director, though with just the one film to her name, it seemed premature to say whether her creative vision and storytelling acumen would translate into future projects. With the arrival of Little Women, a film superbly realized, the filmmaker answers any questions that remain as to her capability behind the camera. As it balances the beauty of its source material with contemporary interpretations of timeless themes, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women pays fitting tribute to a classic novel. One imagines Alcott beaming with pride that her March girls remain as beloved as ever. 

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