Greta Gerwig understands how to convey a sweeping, swooning movement in her directorial style. She proved it with her solo directing debut, Lady Bird, which captured the woozy spirit of a young person’s life, and she does it again with her unexpected adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, Little Women. By comparison, prior versions, especially the smug, stilted 1994 version by the great Gillian Armstrong, feel somewhat leaden despite traversing the same ground. The story of the March sisters, a family growing and evolving in Civil War era America, gets a layered, modern treatment resulting in a well-paced, beautifully emotional, yet narratively confusing version.
Gerwig begins her adaptation (co-written with Louisa May Alcott) in medias res, starting with an older Jo (Saoirse Ronan) selling a story to a wary publisher played by Tracy Letts, who never fails to wow me as an actor. Her victory leads to flashbacks to seven years earlier as her sisters and mother (Laura Dern) find their way through life with their father off at war. By starting the story where she does, Gerwig hones in on a strong female empowerment through line not as prominent in earlier versions. We now know we’ll see Alcott’s avatar Jo find her voice as a writer, thus giving every scene more clarity as to her specialness. Ronin, one of the greats, couldn’t make a false move if she tried, and here we cheer for her success every step of the way.
The eldest sister, Meg (Emma Watson) adheres to more traditional societal norms, wishing to abandon her acting dreams to marry and start a family. Watson’s soulful eyes and bright humor keep her character from feeling like a passive one. Florence Pugh’s confident Amy bursts through the story without a care in the world or what people think of her, while Eliza Scanlen, so great in Sharp Objects, plays the sickly Beth with just the right amount of waning energy. Gerwig has found a way to present the sisters’ interactions with a Robert Altman-esque style of overlapping dialogue and naturalness which brings this potentially stodgy period piece to exciting, modern life. Their scenes crackle and buzz and the cinematography by Yorick Le Saux (Clouds Of Sils Maria) brings a graceful forward momentum to the storytelling.
Unfortunately, the desire to maintain such a brisk pace makes for a lot of confusing transitions. With the plethora of abrupt time shifts, it’s often challenging to know when and where we are in the story. My advice is to follow the hair. The length of a character’s hair will signal the appropriate period, but keeping it all straight often feels like more of a chore than intended. I respect Gerwig eschewing title cards and cheap dissolves, but things move so fast at times I struggled to catch up to the action.
Luckily, in addition to the four fantastic leads, she has a great cast, which includes Timothée Chalamet as the neighbor Theodore Laurence, who loves both Jo and Amy. Chalamet, like Watson, has so much going on in his eyes that you ache for his decisions. He has a great scene in which he tries to convince Jo to marry him where you empathize with him more than expected. Meryl Streep, of course, walks away with every scene she’s in as Aunt March, who never met a situation she couldn’t judge. Louis Garrel does fine work as Friedrich, the German teacher who dares to criticize Jo’s writing. His unbending love for Jo feels well-earned. I didn’t recognize Chris Cooper as Mr. Laurence, Theodore’s grandfather, but he breaks your heart during one of the film’s low points. Only Laura Dern feels underused as the family matriarch. We’ve grown so accustomed to great freakouts and scene-stealing from her, that when she plays soft and serene, it feels like a wasted opportunity. She’s not bad, but compared to her assured, perfectly calibrated performance in Marriage Story, this feels like an afterthought. There’s also a surprise appearance by an actor who feels so miscast that his entrance elicited laughter from the audience. It’s not that he’s bad, as I feel in ten years, people will see this film and not bat an eye at his presence, but for now it feels jarring.
Gerwig takes some liberties with the beloved source material, changing the outcome to suit what she felt were Alcott’s true intentions. It leads to a powerful, inspiring last act, giving this oddly structured version the ability to motivate a whole new generation of young women and the people who root for them.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Little Women gets a 0 out of 50. This is a distinctly feminist story and not a queer one…so in a sense it’s an LBGTQIA cousin, but don’t expect Jo to ape Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby and “go gay all of a sudden”!
By Glenn Gaylord
Little Women opens appropriately enough on Christmas Day in the U.S.