Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is a wise, witty, tender adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel.
Never did I believe I’d write this, but not only does Gerwig surpass what I first believed was my favorite adaptation of the book (every 90s child’s treasured 1994 version with Winona Ryder) but she knocks it upside its head. She leaves you spellbound. She leaves you emotionally wrecked in the best possible way. And she does her audience one better than any of the other versions…one better indeed.
Little Women is one of the best novel to screen adaptations to exist in our time. Period. It is damn near perfectly cast. The writing and direction never steps wrong; it is stylish, fluid, intentional, warm. The cinematography is so well-observed it’s flawless. The costuming is a thing to behold. The pace and structure of this movie both challenge you and guide you along for such an enjoyable ride. I could gush for pages about many specific factors. But I suspect you didn’t come for that. What you came here for, and what I’m attempting to write, is a review of the film overall-how it works as one cohesive work of art. I’ll do my best.
You should know, first,- Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Ladybird, shook moviegoers by the shoulders in excitement, dazzling cinema two years ago in all of its humor, style, snappiness, warmth, messiness, grit, and, if I may say so, in it being so inherently female. So, too, does Little Women. Like fragile baby bird eggs cracked open, slowly but surely, as the creatures within grow in power, gradually this film takes flight, while at last, the birds- I mean women- soar.
Gerwig makes the wise choice of beginning the film when our girls are all young adults. From there, she weaves in the childhood pieces we know and love with seamless grace and precision. We first meet our (would-be, in another adaptation, but this is Gerwig…more on that later) protagonist- Saoirse Ronan’s Jo- when she’s in the throws of life as an aspiring author and a teacher living in New York City. She whirls into the boarding house, standing by the hearth scribbling away, when the young European professor Bhaer comments to her, “You’re on fire.” This is on point for not just the comedy, but in how it sets the tone for this story, for their journeys. Each of these women are on fire, in their own perfect ways.
For those who’ve read the book (which, in my not-so-humble opinion, should be every audience member) then we know the plot. This is a timeless tale of four close sisters growing up during the Civil War (and post Civil War) era, raised by their single mother, (Marmee, played with steadiness, insight and fierce love by the incomparable Laura Dern) while their father is off fighting. Together, they face the world head on, experiencing ups and downs, trials and tribulations, first of family domesticity, and later class struggles, of what it means to be a grown woman in poverty, while fighting to belong, to attain one’s place in this world.
They play. They fight. They fear. They celebrate. They squabble. They rage. They grieve. They each get things done. They learn and they grow. They love hard, love ferociously, deeply- most of all, each other. They’re there for one another. And here’s the thing- each one of these women individually blossoms into who she’s meant to be, anchored by the love of the women (and a few good men) around her.
Yet what makes this adaptation so fresh, so modern, so remarkably smart and likeable, is how it not just shows the beauty in the growth, development, and change of girls into women, but how it shows the pressures, challenges, joys, and yes, we all know, especially today, the ever-present dichotomies of the society in which they live- dichotomies that, again, with such wisdom, Gerwig even makes the kind, gentlemanly, strong men of this movie realize.
Watch how, in one of the film’s earliest scenes, an adult Amy chides her spoiled, drunken, family friend, the gentleman Laurie, (played with such warmth, emotional resonance, and gentle intensity by Timothee Chalamet, God protect him) at a party in France. Here she is, confronting him with such clarity, in all her poised, measured, talented womanhood, with not an ounce of begging. Disappointed, yes, but also demanding he do better. Especially in the midst of his own confusion and heartbreak. Because she knows, understands, that the world expects that of her. That and so much more.
To me, Gerwig’s, and more specifically, the film’s, ability to do this, is what transforms Little Women into something far more than “a [mere] heartwarming, lovable” adaptation- into something that’s remarkably adult. That speaks to and for, not just women coming up in the world, but adult women.
Speaking of Amy, Florence Pugh is a revelation. I walked into this film expecting it to belong primarily to Saoirse Ronan. Don’t get me wrong- there hasn’t been a better Jo March, (yes, I know, roll your eyes all you want) and she owns every scene. Ronan’s freshness, affection, and fearlessness are evident in every heroine she embodies, but at last, at last an onscreen Jo March is given a formidable female opponent, a challenger to give her pause, to go to bat with her. Here that is Florence’s Amy March, whose transformation, to me, is the most rewarding, perhaps the most powerful, and perhaps, too, the most unexpected. I was floored.
[Just an aside, while I’m ranting- I want to chug bottles of red wine with Amy while galavanting in France, want to beg her to teach me her ways of how to marry a beautiful, smart, poetic, wealthy man so that I may spend my days in the 1860s honing my artistic abilities. :)]
We all know why Louisa crafted the novel from Jo’s point of view and why her perspective’s the most pronounced- Jo March is based on Alcott herself. And while I’ve felt that, in other versions, Jo deserved her spot on center stage, so moved, I was, this time around, by getting time with each of the four women, and with Marmee.
If and when you go see this movie, I implore you to drink it in. But I also think you should listen, really listen. Listen to how, with such conviction, Emma Watson’s Meg March tells Jo: “Just because my dreams are different than yours, doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.”
Listen to how, a near-death, but still empathic, still content, Beth (the even keeled, yet powerful Eliza Scanlon) tells Jo: “Don’t just write for yourself. Do what Marmee taught us to do. Write for someone else. Do it for someone else.”
Listen, to how Amy tells Laurie, with such intelligence, such compassion, and not one ounce of self-pity: “Don’t you stand there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. I’m not a poet- not an artist, I’m just a woman. (And later, with even more wisdom- “I’ve played second to Jo my entire life.”)
Listen, marvel, at the sheer strength and also the weariness that’s evident when Jo proclaims, at her wits end, to Marmee: “Women, they have minds and they have souls, as well as just hearts. They’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it! But — I am so lonely!”
This all of this, in all of it’s insight, complexity, exhaustion, courage, exhilaration, and true vulnerability, is what it means to be a woman.
Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is inherently female art. Damn, am I here for it. Because our world today needs it. We need to watch it, listen to it, and learn from it. Films such as Little Women do more than reaffirm the importance of beloved novels for young people. They do more than just “adapt a book.” They teach us, they remind us that women are the heartbeat of so many vital, sacred, and vibrant things in this world- that we need the Beths and Megs every bit as much as we may revere the Amys and the Jos of society.
I leave you at last, reader, with the quote I believe sums up this film in all of its power, something that Marmee says softly, in a quiet, touching moment, teaching Jo:
“There are some natures too noble to curb…some natures too lofty to bend.”
Run, don’t walk, to see Little Women. It’s perhaps one of the greatest films of this past decade.
If you’re not moved upon viewing it, then I can’t help you.
[Finally, because I’m not as refined as Amy, as cool and collected as I’d like to be, let me just proclaim to the world that a grave injustice has been done by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in not nominating Greta Gerwig for Best Director at the Golden Globes. If she doesn’t take home every other freaking director award this season, we shall start a Twitter-riot. If I still had my Twitter activated, that would be my first tweet of 2020. But alas. That’s all.]