Little Women (2018) movie review: sisters weird

Little Women red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

This modern update of the beloved classic novel is embarrassingly misjudged, so earnest and on-the-nose a transfer to today that the March sisters feel not like modern girls but odd, out-of-step transplants from another time.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about girls and women
I’m “biast” (con): not sure we needed yet another adaptation of this novel
I have read the source material (and I like it)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

I can see how it seemed like a good idea. A modern update of Little Women! What hotblooded gal who grew up sharing the hopes and dreams and disappointments of the March sisters wouldn’t want to see what Jo, Beth, Meg, and Amy would be like in today’s world? What little girl just discovering Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel now wouldn’t welcome some help imagining the sisters as her very own 21st-century peers?

But oh dear. This feature directorial debut of actor and costume designer Clare Niederpruem — who also wrote the script, with Kristi Shimek — is embarrassingly misjudged. It’s so earnest and on the nose a transfer that these new March sisters feel odd and out of step, not like modern girls who grow into modern women but actually like transplants from another time… and not intentionally so, either. Much of the world on display here feels unreal or at best naive. Alcott’s sisters represented, in some ways, a range of ideals of womanhood of the American Civil War era. These sisters aren’t idealized, which is probably a good thing, but they are barely even realized. I don’t recognize myself or any girls or women I know in them. At all.

Coming Christmas 2020: Little Women Go to War.
Coming Christmas 2020: Little Women Go to War.

One thing, alas, transplants well: there’s always a war to take away husbands and fathers, and here Papa March (Bart Johnson: #Stuck, Locker 13) is a distant figure in desert fatigues Skyping in for a chat with his family. But the “genteel poverty” of these Marches looks like a charmingly appealing — and very expensive — shabby chic set for a Pottery Barn catalogue shoot, not anything redolent of family financial ruination. The homeschooling of a gaggle of children today into their late teens smacks of cultish religious fundamentalism, not a good way to educate smart and inquisitive girls whose intellectual needs cannot be met in a mid-19th-century schoolhouse. (“I’m sick of being the weird homeschooled sisters,” Meg moans. This might be the most authentic line of dialogue in the entire movie. But why are they homeschooled? We never learn.) And everyone calling the March girls’ mother (Lea Thompson: J. Edgar) “Marmee,” even when they’re not her children, starts to verge on the creepy. (I kept thinking of Mike Pence calling his wife “Mother.” *shudder*)

Jo (Sarah Davenport), of course, takes center stage over the others; not only is she the protagonist of the book, but she’s perhaps the favorite of Alcott fans, hardly surprising given Jo’s literary bent. But Jo’s temper — her most notorious characteristic as well as, I suspect, her most admired one among female readers who might feel their own anger quashed by even 21st-century propriety — rears up here only as a kind of selfish cruelty, which is a huge disappointment, and maybe the biggest injustice of this adaptation. The shape her writerly ambitions take manifest in a wildly unsophisticated appreciation of how modern publishing works: if novel-Jo’s tendency to drift toward writing for financial gain was meant to have been transferred over, it would follow a very different course than it does, which is cringeworthy.

“And then my next novel is gonna be Lord of the Rings meets Jane Austen...”
“And then my next novel is gonna be Lord of the Rings meets Jane Austen…”

Against the backdrop of unpleasant Jo, the other sisters are a mash of blandness. The eldest, Meg (Melanie Stone), has no ambitions beyond marriage and motherhood, which makes her the one bucking cultural expectations in the 21st century the way the original Jo was in the 19th, but the movie — as with so many other motifs it touches on — doesn’t seem to realize this. “Boring” Beth (Allie Jennings) has no ambitions at all, and little purpose in the story beyond, well, you know. (I won’t spoil if, for some reason, you feel the need to see this even if you haven’t read the book.) Baby Amy (Elise Jones as a child, Taylor Murphy as a young adult) wants to be an artist, but the movie seems to think that means nothing more than being occasionally prettily splattered in paint. The men in their lives — neighbor and surrogate brother Laurie (Lucas Grabeel: High School Musical 3: Senior Year) and his tutor, Brooke (Stuart Edge); and Jo’s literary friend, college professor Freddy (Ian Bohen) — are equally flavorless mush.

The plot jumps around in time too much, which is often confusing: with the exception of the casting change for Amy, it’s almost always unclear what time frame we’re supposedly in because the girls never exhibit any genuine growth or change. They are just flatly the same throughout. The stiltedness and the artificiality of everything we endure here is a problem, but mostly because it results in a regrettable bloodlessness. No adaptation of Little Women should ever lack passion like this one does.

see also:
Little Women (2019) movie review: looking askance, with love, at a classic

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