Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is a cinematic breath of fresh air. It also reminds us that even though a story may be old and well-told; there are always things to discover and fresh ways to tell it. Like a warm blanket, Gerwig huddles us close together while she opens a beloved and familiar story.
Gerwig has infused Alcott’s story with a sort of organized and meticulously plotted chaos. She never makes it feel forced, though. Instead, the scenes feel alive, as if they are happening for the first time right before our eyes. The characters speak over each other with excited and fearless energy.
The world created in Little Women feels lived in, yet vivacious and unpredictable. A kinetic, gleeful yawp of a film, Gerwig takes us back and forth between the past and present. Yes, she has broken up the linear narrative, but she has also molded the structure in such a way as to solve an age-old problem. The problem of Alcott’s desire to end the book one way and the publisher’s desire for it to end another. Gerwig finds a way to have her cake and eat it too but in a way that is clever and utterly truthful to both Alcott and the March sisters.
Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is as stubborn and strong-willed as she’s ever been. Ronan, with her startling Peter O’Toole blue eyes, can’t help but captivate the young boy next door Laurie (Timothee Chalamet). Chalamet and Ronan have a unique chemistry together as they play out one of the more infamous will they/won’t they flirtations.
At a ball, Jo has attended with Meg (Emma Watson), Laurie and Jo dance outside on the porch. The scene, like countless ones before it and after, bubbles with joy. It lifts us up out of our chairs as we want to dance along with them. It serves as a reminder that kids have and always will be just goofballs with too much energy and a zest for something, anything, to do.
Poor Amy (Florence Pugh) has often been derided, dismissed, and hated. Gerwig, who has empathy and love for every single one of her characters, gives us an Amy petulant and bratty but so lovable and earnest that we feel ashamed for ever thinking so ill of her. Yes, she burns Jo’s manuscript but Gerwig shows us Amy did it in a childish pique. It’s not until she sees Jo’s rage that the full impact of what she’s done hits her.
Pugh’s Amy almost steals the show as she stands up for herself and her sisters. Later, after they have all grown and Jo has turned Laurie’s proposal down, he finally wakes up and sees Amy. Pugh’s reaction at the realization that the moment she’s dreamed of has finally come true but only because she is not Jo is a perfect moment in a film chocked full of perfect moments. Her line, “How can you be so cruel,” drips with the vowels and constants of a broken heart and shattered dreams.
Laura Dern is one of the great treasures of our time and as Marmie, she brings warmth and love but with an undercurrent of quiet rage to the character. She and Jo have a heart to heart one night and Jo asks her how come she’s never angry. “I’m angry all the time. Patience is not a strong suit but after forty years I think I’m getting the hang of it.” Marmie has raised four girls largely by herself with only the help of a housekeeper Hannah (Jayne Houdyshell).
Her husband is off fighting in the Civil War on the Union side and has been gone for years. Handing out clothes to soldiers with a black woman she says about the war “I used to be so ashamed of my country.” To which the woman replies, “No offense ma’am’ but you should still be.”
Marmie is the embodiment of all her girls. In turn, we see her in all of them. We see her impatience and passion in Jo as she snaps at Friedrich (Louis Garrel) for calling her writing “bad”. Her refusal to be ignored and sharp intellect in Amy as she tells Laurie that marriage is an act of love for a man but an economic imperative for women because they have no other choice. Even her sense of selflessness and compassion for those in need lives on in Beth (Eliza Scanlen). While Marmie is gone, Beth makes sure the weekly donations go out to the people who need them. She is perhaps too selfless as she visits the house with Scarlet fever.
Throughout the film, I wondered what of Marmie resided in Meg (Emma Watson). But I realized that she was the most like Marmie of all of them. Meg marries John (James Norton) for love and not money. Much like her mother, Meg finds herself seething with rage at the hardships of being poor and soon finds herself having to learn patience in order for her marriage and love to survive.
Little Women switches between perspectives and points of view so effortlessly it’s easy to forget that this is only Gerwig’s second film. She has confidence, lack of ego, and a daring attitude usually reserved for directors in their twilight years. Gerwig and her editor Nick Houy play with the cuts between scenes while her cinematographer Yorick Le Saux dutifully switches between points of view, always giving us visual cues to help us realize where we are in time.
Gerwig might be one of the few directors to truly understand the use of slow motion. It is used once and during a scene in which Jo runs back to the boarding house and for the briefest of seconds. It is not meant to be dramatic but merely a way to say this is a memory. The moment may also be Gerwig cleverly hinting at a narrative reveal.
But she never lets her narrative playfulness overwhelm the story. Le Saux’s camera while never nailed to the floor is never distractingly visible. The movements coincide with the emotions of the characters and of the scene. Jo rejects Laurie and the camera pulls back to see her overlooking the rolling Concord hillsides; Gerwig and Le Saux visually relate to us Jo’s loneliness and independence.
Likewise Houy and Gerwig never overly edit a scene. The cuts are sharp and precise allowing for one of the smoothest flowing films I’ve seen all year, next to Lulu Wang’s The Farewell or Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The cuts between past and present are never jarring. A large part of the energy of Little Women comes from how Houy and Gerwig have edited the film giving it a lively unpredictable feel but without being distracting or drawing attention to itself.
Greta Gerwig is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors working today. Her movies have a vivaciousness and an earnestness to them without ever being mawkish or overly sentimental. I found myself crying as Beth and Jo lay on the beach, Jo reading stories she herself has written as Beth lay sickly in her lap. I gasped when Amy refused Fred’s proposal. And I cringed when Aunt March (Meryl Streep) chose Amy over Jo to go with her to Europe.
I knew these things were coming but it didn’t matter. It felt as if I was seeing it all for the first time. The March sisters have persisted so long in the public consciousness for the basic reason because they embody real women; thus women of all sorts respond to them. Women are often muses, ciphers, symbols, or ornaments but even more so in Alcott’s time. Gerwig is acutely aware of how much has changed but is even more aware and enraged by how much hasn’t.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing