‘Little Women’ (2019) | Movie Review

With the end of the 2010s fast approaching, film critics everywhere, including myself, have been combing over the last ten years to determine their favorite films of the decade. One of the films making my personal top ten of the decade, sorry to spoil it, will be Greta Gerwig‘s coming-of-age dramedy Lady Bird. In my review for the film, I said it “is one of those rare movies where I honestly cannot find any faults with it.” This holds true today, and my admiration for Gerwig’s exquisite work has only grown in the two years since its release. You can imagine upon the announcement of her next feature, my expectations reached higher than the stratosphere. Probably an unfair place to put them, sure, but my confidence in her abilities as a storyteller warranted them. No film this year did I anticipate more than her take on the classic novel Little Women, with maybe the morbid curiosity of Cats a close second.

My only exposure to Little Women came earlier this year when I took my first look at Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation starring Winona Ryder, which I absolutely adored. I have never read Louisa May Alcott‘s 1868 novel, not being a voracious reader outside of what I was assigned to read back in school. I run a film website. Obviously, movies were my books. Armstrong’s film took a fairly classical, straightforward approach to the material, leaning into the romantic sweep of the story and really making the thrust of the story in every way Ryder’s Jo. Knowing Gerwig’s adaptation was forthcoming, I knew she would not be someone to take a remotely similar path to Armstrong’s, who executed exactly the film she wanted to make wonderfully. When most people see a great adaptation of a work, they think to themselves, “Don’t do it again. It was already great.” My reaction, however, was, “I cannot wait to see Greta tackle this material.” (In my head, we are on a first name basis.)

Photo: Columbia Pictures

So, when I sat down in the theater, the lights went down, and the film opens with Jo (Saoirse Ronan) in New York City, looking to get a story published, I immediately perked up in my seat. If you know the story of Little Women, you know this occurs pretty far into it. From the first frame, Gerwig forges her own path for how to tell this story. Her Little Women simultaneously tracks two separate timelines. The prime timeline is that of the March sisters living their lives apart, Jo as a struggling writer in New York forming a bond with German professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), Amy (Florence Pugh) off in Paris with her aunt (Meryl Streep) learning to be a painter, Meg (Emma Watson) still in their hometown of Concord as a poor homemaker with two young children, and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) at home with her mother (Laura Dern) knocking at death’s door with the lingering effects of scarlet fever. From that, we jump to them as a group, growing up under one roof, showing all of the affection, love, and resentment that can exist in a tight group of sisters.

Armstrong’s version was very much Jo’s film. Gerwig decides to take the title Little Women to heart and make it an ensemble picture, giving each for women full, complicated characters with inner lives and different ideas of how to be a woman in Civil War-era America. Pugh’s Amy, in particular, gets to break out and show what goes on in her head. Instead of her time in Paris spent mostly on her potential courtship with Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), her old next door neighbor and sister Jo’s ex-beau, we see her struggle with living in the shadow of her sister, wanting to be great at her chosen artistic path when the art world has moved beyond her style, and possibly resigning herself to just marry the first rich man she meets, even if that means giving up her passions or her not loving that man.

Because of the completeness of every character, the film never proposes a way for a woman to live her life. The easy, obvious path would be to stand alongside Jo the entire film, saying a woman does not need a man to make her worthwhile. That sentiment holds true to this film, but never does it look down on a woman, like Meg, who wants to be married and raise a family. Both are perfectly valid ways to live your life, as are the ways of Amy, Beth, and their mother. A certain path is not right for every person, and if you try to force them onto that path, they will never be happy. Female-led and created films bear so much burden for needing to reach out directly to every woman who sees it, representing them perfectly due to a severe lack of options in film history. I love that this film shows how impossible that notion is because no two women, or people for that matter, are the same.

Photo: Columbia Pictures

From top to bottom, you could not ask for a more capable, open, and committed cast. These four women as the March sisters feel like a group of real siblings. Their familiarity with one another, particularly in how they physically occupy the same space with one another, often comes across as we had the ability to look in on a family going through their daily life with no notion anyone is watching. They also have their own unique way of attacking the humor of the piece, of which there is quite a lot. Little Women has the same deftness of blending raw, human emotion with laughs as Lady Bird. To go pack to Florence Pugh, who I would say ultimately is the MVP of the film and should be a frontrunner for awards contention (in my personal awards, she most certainly is), she has this incredibly light touch and apparent lack of self awareness to find the funniest thing in the smallest of gestures. Even Eliza Scanlen gets some great lines in when the quiet, innocent dove type in a story like this never gets them.

Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, a frequent collaborator of Olivier Assayas and Luca Guadagnino, creates an old photographic quality to every scene. The choice to shoot on film adds so much lovely texture to the images and adds to the feeling we are looking in on these people’s lives. Our only visual relationship in life with the 1800s is through photographs, and the modern, sleek digital look would just have broken that spell. While visually wonderful, Lady Bird never got Gerwig the respect she deserved as someone creating a unique, visual style. I do not think Little Women will face that same issue. So many images linger in my mind since seeing it, whether it’s Jo and Beth sitting on the beach as the sand gusts around them or Chris Cooper as Mr. Laurence (yeah, he’s in this too and gives an incredible small performance) silently listening to Beth play his piano in the next room. Period films can sometimes look designed. Little Women looks lived in, a world where hair can be messy and dresses can be worn and frayed.

Gerwig as a writer has dealt exclusively in the present, or the recent past with Lady Bird. As an actor, you almost have to describe her as a modern performer. Going back to the 1860s, she shows us how the same issues affecting women today always have. Plenty of period films have done this, but Gerwig never wants to make a point of it. No one has an anachronistic line where they just reword “Nevertheless, she persisted.” She uses these issues and places them in their proper historical context, and by not calling attention to the parallels of today and letting the audience come to it themselves, the points she makes resonate so much more. Also, it’s just nice when a filmmaker respects her audience enough to do that.

Photo: Columbia Pictures

With all the thematic material she wades through and all of the craft put into the film, Little Women is still a blast to watch. The film works a sheer entertainment, free of stodginess or period film stiffness. Ping-ponging between the duel timelines keeps you on your toes about where the film will go next. Because of the surprises, the structure makes the laughs funnier and the emotional moments more poignant. Gerwig guides you along masterfully, where you feel exactly what she wants you to every second of the 135-minute running time. Though Little Women is beloved by many, I am sure a ton of people hear that title and think, “Homework.” This adaptation could not be further from homework.

Two films in as a solo director, Greta Gerwig establishes herself not just as a filmmaker to watch but as one of the major voices working in film today. In my opening, I used that quote from my Lady Bird review about not seeing any faults with it, and upon a first watch, I would say the same about Little Women. She creates these humane, lively portraits of complicated people that stimulate not just my brain, processing it all as a critic, but in my heart. Watching her films are a pure pleasure, whether I’m crying due to laughter or just crying. Her films connect with me in the way I hope every film does. Going into Little Women, Gerwig had made one of my ten favorite films of the decade. Coming out, she may have made two.

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