For those who have read the ever-relevant 1869 novel “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott, news of yet another adaptation may bring excitement or exasperation (the novel has seen now six movie adaptations, several series and even an opera). For those who have not, the news of Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet and Greta Gerwig, the director of “Lady Bird,” collaborating once again may bring similar reactions. For all, Gerwig’s version of “Little Women” proves a worthwhile, moving and timeless film, avoiding the failures of countless book adaptations and making its mark on 2019’s notable year in film.
The movie opens with Josephine “Jo” March (Saoirse Ronan) seeking publication of one of her writing projects. She is shot down by an elderly male publisher, immediately demonstrating the power of gender roles during the 19th century and how Jo pushes back against them. This sets the backdrop for the rest of the story, which follows the four March sisters as they pursue various passions and romantic interests. Their conflicting personalities often come to a head throughout the film and reflect the still-pervasive conflict surrounding gender roles in society, giving the film relevance well past its Civil War dating.
This adaptation of “Little Women” successfully captures the true hearts and souls of the March sisters in a way that allows for connections between the audience and the story. Jo is an unapologetically independent and strong woman who doesn’t need a husband and picture-perfect family to feel fulfilled. Margaret “Meg” March (Emma Watson), the eldest sister, is a kind-hearted and beautiful young woman who always looks out for her sisters and keeps them in check. Amy Curtis March (Florence Pugh), the youngest of the four, is a feisty, motivated woman with a passion for art. Then there is Elizabeth “Beth” March (Eliza Scanlen), a shy, sweet gentle and musically gifted young lady. Unlike her sisters, she has no desire to leave her home and family and is happy with her life as it is. The four sisters are raised by Margaret “Marmee” March (Laura Dern), a caring and warm mother who acts as the head of the household while her husband is away at war, as well as a moral compass for their daughters during their teenage years.
The beginning of the movie is squarely in the middle of the story, and viewers are given flashbacks shot in a softer, warmer light interspersed with the colder and perhaps more sorrowful main storyline. This chronological shuffling allows for two climactic moments to be realized in the third act despite being in dramatically different times in the character’s lives. Though this structure forces the audience to work a little more, the extra effort certainly pays off as the contrast between their happy, bubbly youth and each characters’ individual struggles later in life highlight their moral development.
Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), the sisters’ neighbor, sees a significant amount of screentime as a romantic interest, and Chalamet’s nuanced performance justifies his prominent role. Other standout acting comes from Dern, who perfectly channels her role as a loving mother and all the accompanying emotions, and Pugh, who brings resentfulness as well as righteousness to the sister who has historically been disliked for her whining.
Careful not to follow the book by the letter but also not to stray too far from its ever-important message of female empowerment and resilience in the face of adversity, Gerwig’s “Little Women” proves to be a smart, entertaining and sincere movie for those who read the book just as well as those who have not.