Little Women, 2019.
Written and Directed by Greta Gerwig.
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Bob Odenkirk, Chris Cooper, Abby Quinn, Dash Barber, Hadley Robinson, and Meryl Streep.
Four sisters come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War.
The smartest creative decision in this latest iteration of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved 19th-century novel Little Women is not that Greta Gerwig has chosen to update the ending with a modernized approach that is simultaneously its own work of art while respecting the pages of the book, but that the tone itself is not conforming to something out of the 19th century. This is distinctively something written and directed Greta Gerwig, right down to the cast that reunites her with Lady Bird leading lady Saoirse Ronan, the occasionally quirky yet always endearing characteristics of the March family, and the sharp editing that always knows when to hard-cut with clarity to the past and back to the present.
I don’t think anyone reading a review of Little Women needs to know what the film is actually about; it’s still taught in various high school curriculums, but even then, the story itself is fairly universally known to people that have never read the book or seen any of the other film adaptations. However, for the blind, I will say that the narrative centers on the March family, or rather its four daughters; Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Amy (Florence Pugh), Meg (Emma Watson), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen). Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiography didn’t fall in line with what male publishers wanted to sell to the public; whereas women were seen as fit for marrying rich and being the perfect housewives/mothers, Little Women dreamed bigger for its ambitious protagonists on the verge of adulthood.
Amy has artistic sensibilities and desires to become a world-renowned painter, Meg chooses to love a poor man with her heart rather than a wealthy stiff for money, and Jo is so determined to make it as a best-selling author while being unbreakably headstrong and independent that she views the possibility of forever settling down with anyone as an impossible fantasy. Not even when the eyes set on her are the neighborly Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence (Timothée Chalamet) does she even think about flinching on her ways, which is made all the more impactful considering the heartthrob casting on both sides of the token. As for Beth, tragically she does not get to choose what she wants to do in life as she is stricken with scarlet fever, although she is musically inclined and gets to show that talent off.
While Greta Gerwig’s narrative sticks to the source material for the most part (the clever twist on the ending is worth the price of admission alone), there is more than enough here to justify its existence. Little Women is a beautiful family portrait that never crosses into preachy territory on the proper way for any woman to live; it never vilifies the option to find happiness in being a conventional housewife, while also functioning as deeply inspirational for those that do envision achieving loftier dreams. It is pointed on who and what to attack, the outdated beliefs of some men and regressive (although standard at the time) nature of dictating the role any given woman should play. This is a movie that genuinely supports women from all walks of life, set in the 19th century be damned. Saoirse Ronan also gets and nails a powerful speech touching on the potential of women and her frustrations with gender inequality; it’s the scene Oscar-nomination clips are made of, and she certainly deserves one come February.
As someone unfamiliar with Little Women beyond the general plot and literature lessons, it’s oddly enough Beth that feels the character most certainly deserving of a little more screentime. Again, there is heart-breaking tragedy in watching the rest of the growing women make their own choices (many of them bold) while she is stuck on the sidelines suffering in bed. Naturally, this portion climaxes with a tearjerking moment (and one that Greta Gerwig maximizes for emotional impact by utilizing past and present juxtapositions). Her siblings get to embark on luxurious activities such as visiting Europe (Amy visits Meryl Streep’s snarky Aunt March), glamorous dances (as one can probably expect, the luscious and colorful costume design will generate much awards talk), or moving from Massachusetts to New York in search of better writing career opportunities.
Little Women is arguably at its best when it’s going back in time seven years, showing these young adults living life relatively carefree and declaring their dreams. The quartet all have fantastic chemistry with one another, successfully able to make audiences buy into their warm affection for each other and the anger stemming from their occasional fights (which itself is grounded in how different they all are from one another). Laura Dern is also great as their mother, building character within them all and encouraging them to show support.
If anything, the only noticeable flaw with Little Women is that for anyone that’s not Jo or Amy, it feels like there should be more that was probably edited down to keep the running time from going any higher than 2 hours and 15 minutes. That goes for Meg’s relationship and inevitable marriage, the bad boy behavior of Laurie who doesn’t know how to deal with rejection at first (he decides to pursue Amy following that, with Florence Pugh eliciting a great deal of emotion and making a case for Best Supporting Actress choosing between lovers and what’s best for her own passions), and one or two more scenes centered on Beth. Other than that, Little Women is a triumphant modernization of culturally significant literature thanks to a delightful cast, immaculate direction, and stunning period piece details. It’s damn near impossible to not come away smiling, especially with an ending that ingenious.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com