LITTLE WOMEN Is A Modern, Meta Ode To Alcott (Review)

Jo March runs through the streets of New York City, clutching a folder of papers; they’re her stories, and she just sold one for profit. Adulthood, for Jo, is firm lines and blanched colors, the magic of youth drained from the seams as perfunctory tasks trump true creative spirit. She’s a writer, trying to make it in a big city, but she hasn’t yet cracked the code of authenticity that will break her art free. She’s a big dreamer, but an impractical one. And she’s the same girl that in Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Little Women, proclaimed: “I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all some day.”

In Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Little Women, Jo gets to do just that–existing as her book counterpart and inhabiting her creator as well. It’s what separates Gerwig’s take from the dime a dozen versions that came before it. Here, Gerwig weaves Alcott into the story in a more direct, meta-textual way. Her publishing woes, her societal frustrations, her struggles with ending the novel in a way that both expresses Jo’s views on marriage and satisfies the reader. With a few confounding exceptions, Saoirse Ronan’s Jo March is the closest thing to Alcott we’ve ever seen onscreen. She feels–in a way–like Gerwig, too; using her chosen art form to embrace feminine delicacy instead of shaming it.

Saorise Ronan as Jo March in Little Women.Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures

Gerwig’s Little Women tells Jo’s story across two intersecting timelines. In the present, she’s a governess in New York, selling genre stories–about vampires and murder–to earn money for her family back in Concord, Massachusetts. She has caught the attention of a German professor, Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), whose harsh critique of her writing spurs both anger and inspiration. Her time in New York triggers memories of her youth in Concord with her sisters–Meg (Emma Watson), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and Amy (Florence Pugh)–and soon the timelines start bleeding together.

We see the March girls’ lush adolescence, and how their fiery imaginations fueled them through harsh times. They struggle with money as their father (Bob Odenkirk) is off fighting in the Civil War, and their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) spends her days caring for impoverished local families. The once high-society March family is now displaced in Concord society, and it’s up to the girls to secure their future. At first, those expectations fall on the bright and bitingly honest Jo, who cares for her wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep) by day, to her annoyance. But Jo is too spirited to tame, and soon it’s Amy who emerges as the family’s best shot at financial stability.

Timothee Chalamet and Florence Pugh in Little Women.Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures

Ronan is expectedly great as Jo, but the real standout of the film is Florence Pugh as Amy, one of the most controversial characters in all of literature. Bratty and entitled in her youth, Amy–a talented painter–grows into a fine young woman who understands the economic value of marriage. Unlike Jo, who thinks talent alone will bring the world to her feet, Amy knows the cost of the artist’s life, and that it’s only profitable to a woman if she’s the very best. Long misunderstood by readers, Gerwig and Pugh find Amy’s heart and value, and make them the soul of this Little Women. Pugh understands the character from the inside-out, inhabiting her with a hilarious youthful snappiness in the past, and a delicate but futile strength in the present. She’s magnificent.

The other big highlight of the film is Timothée Chalamet as Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, who lives next door to the March girls with his grandfather Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) and tutor John Brooke (James Norton). Laurie quickly befriends Jo at a Christmas party and the two make a splendid match. Both fondly disregard rules and expectations, and find enormous comfort in one another. Jo initiates him into the family, where he–a wealthy, aimless young man–finds purpose among their scrappier way of life. Laurie is a generational heartthrob and Chalamet plays him to perfection; it’s hard not to fall in love with him, and his frustrating romantic intensity. In Chalamet’s hands, Laurie is both immature and irresistible, which is the character’s greatest dichotomy.

Saoirse Ronan and Timothee Chalamet in Little Women.
Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures

His chemistry with Ronan–his Lady Bird co-star, another Gerwig collaboration–is superb, but it’s his scenes with Pugh that anchor the entire film. Laurie’s love for both Jo and Amy is complicated, but this is the first Little Women that understands why Amy is ultimately his better match: because she’s seen him as both expectation and reality; an aspirational heartthrob and a disappointing, aimless adult. She knows how to make him better in ways Jo can’t. Age-old Jo/Laurie shippers will walk out of his one questioning their allegiance.

The film has everything you’d expect from Little Women; iconic moments like Amy falling through the ice, Beth’s scarlet fever, Jo’s haircut, father’s return home, Meg’s fairytale wedding to Mr. Brooke. But Gerwig adds a modern flavor to the scenes. Amy gets monologues about the stakes of gender gap expectations. Jo opines about the lonely artist’s life, and how women deserve to be more than tokens for male affection. Marmee expresses the woes of being an American in an era of slavery and war. Some of these moments work, some feel a little too try-hard, but Gerwig’s efforts are still notable.

Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Eliza Scanlen in Little Women.Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures

The film isn’t without its weaknesses. The back-and-forth editing is occasionally confusing, and sometimes hinders the power of Jo’s arc. Her growing dissatisfaction with her work and her isolating loneliness is powerful when chronological, and suffers a bit here interspersed with happy memories of togetherness. There’s also one puzzling addition to her relationship with Laurie that rings false to Alcott’s story and Jo’s character, although not detrimentally. Laura Dern’s Marmee feels a little too sparkly compared to the hard-worn and exhausted character of the book, and Emma Watson’s Meg fails to make much of an impression, though she has a few touching moments that contrast her desires with her sisters’.

But by the film’s end, it’s impossible not to be in love with Gerwig’s Little Women. The final moments subvert and alter Alcott’s story in a way that, ironically, honor her even more than a straight adaptation might. If you’re familiar with Alcott’s life and publishing history, you might get emotional watching Jo’s story progress to its next stage. Even if you don’t, you can still appreciate the lovely magic the closing moments inspire. Little Women is a story about love, and why it needn’t be sacrificed in the creative pursuit. But it’s also about learning to speak from your heart–proudly, unabashedly, and honestly. Gerwig does just that. Louisa May Alcott would be proud.

4 out of 5

Featured Image: Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures

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