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

part of my Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: A very welcome feminist interpretation of Alcott’s beloved novel, layered in sly, winking awareness of Hollywood clichés and the cultural pressures on women. Alive and electric, an absolute treasure.
I’m “biast” (pro): love the book, love the cast, love Gerwig, desperate for movies by and about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have read the source material (and I love it)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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Did we need yet another film version of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women, which has been adapted for the big screen and for TV at least 20 times, first as a 1917 silent, most recently just last year (though in a very small indie production)? Turns out the answer is a resounding “Hell, yes!”

Writer-director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, Mistress America) has given us an absolute treasure of a movie, one that is, for a wonder, hugely faithful to the book in the broad sweep yet also skeptical of it in just the right way. Gerwig tells a tale we all know so well with a change of emphasis here, a small twist there, not merely for the sake of something new or to “update” it but to engage in a conversation with the book, teasing out why we continue to love it even with some rather regressive ideas running through it, liberal though the novel might have been in the 1860s. (If you aren’t familiar with the story, this is a superb introduction to it.) This is a 21st-century-feminist interrogation of the book that recognizes the cultural pressures that Alcott was under, as a woman and as a writer, even as she wrote about bucking expectations… and the pressures that Gerwig, as a filmmaker, and the girls and women in her modern audience are subject to as well.

Little Women 2019 Florence Pugh Meryl Streep
“I certainly would have played Jo if there’d been a Little Women movie around when I was your age. But you seem to be handling vapid little Amy quite well, my dear…”

Ingeniously, Gerwig mixes up the timeline of the journey of the March sisters, of Concord, Massachusetts, as they grow into womanhood during and just after the Civil War. This works partly as a smart way to give priority to the more dramatic bits — here’s the youngest, Amy (the tremendous Florence Pugh: Midsommar, Fighting with My Family), already on her exciting European grand tour right at the beginning of the story! But mostly it serves Gerwig’s purpose of looking askance where the themes need some rebalancing… a rebalancing that Alcott would be unlikely to have had any problem with. So literary tomboy Jo (Saoirse Ronan [Mary Queen of Scots, On Chesil Beach], on fire) is already in New York as the film opens, talking with a newspaper editor (Tracy Letts: Ford v Ferrari, The Post) about publishing her short stories, and their conversation — his grudging admiration for her writing, her grudging willingness to accept his editorial guidance — sets the tone for everything to come: sly, layered in winking awareness that this movie is constructing itself for entertaining consumption within certain narrative confines and tropes, just as Alcott was doing with her fiction.

Yet there’s nothing dry or academic in Gerwig’s reading between Alcott’s lines! Quite the contrary: this is a film electric with the task of bringing the March sisters — also featuring Emma Watson (Beauty and the Beast, Noah) as Meg and Eliza Scanlen as Beth — to living, breathing life in ways that feel so very fresh. The meta that Gerwig delightfully finds will, I think, satisfy purists who will brook no deviation from the book as well as those of us who might yearn for a story that can be more progressive than Alcott was able to publicly be. The result is a movie that is timely and timeless, traditional and modern; it’s a very welcome reappreciation and interpretation of Alcott and her novel. Which seems like the best reason to have bothered with a new movie version of it at all.

Greta Gerwig’s delightful meta will satisfy purists as well as those who might yearn for a more progressive story than Alcott was able to write.

That perfect-for-right now feeling is only deepened by some fine performances: Chris Cooper (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Cars 3) as the Marches’ neighbor Mr. Laurence moved me to tears in the quiet moment in which he listens to Beth play his long-neglected piano; Laura Dern (Cold Pursuit, Trial by Fire) as Marmee did the same at a difficult mother’s moment. Laurie, the neighbor boy who becomes like a brother to the Marches, is more of a jerk than we’re used to seeing, which feels like a cheeky tweak to Timothée Chalamet’s (Beautiful Boy, Hostiles) Sensitive Young Man persona by both the actor and Gerwig. Ronan beautifully finds a path among Jo’s passion and temper and intellect that in the tenor of her performance alone is a testament to the conflicting directions in which young women — even today — are pulled. And the jumping around in time means we get to see how extraordinarily Pugh lets her Amy mature from spoiled brat to sophisticated and wise young woman with frequent side-by-side comparisons.

Little Women 2019 Saoirse Ronan Timothée Chalamet
“Look, I love you, Laurie, but you’re such a little punk this time around…”

There’s so much to love here, and much to unpack in Gerwig’s triumph, so I’ll limit myself to one more example of the sneaky brilliance of this splendid movie. By casting Louis Garrel (The Dreamers) as Friedrich Bhaer, Jo’s potential beau, the film takes a marvelous little dig at modern Hollywood, which sees nothing wrong with endlessly casting men as love interests to women 20 years their junior… as would have been the case here if Gerwig had been faithful to the book in this aspect. Friedrich here is much younger than Alcott wrote him, and the actor is only 11 years older than Ronan. Which is still a lot, more than is usual in real life… but combined with the fact that Gerwig also chose to downplay him as a character, she ends up smacking both Hollywood notions of what constitutes an appropriate romantic couple as well as the assumption that the most interesting and most important part of a woman’s story revolves around finding a man.

I’d love to now throw every classic novel about women at Greta Gerwig and see what she makes of them all. I bet she’d do something amazing with Wuthering Heights or, I dunno, Little House on the Prairie. Someone make that happen sharpish.

see also:
what do women want? ‘Little Women’ and ‘Hustlers’ have some answers

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Fri, Dec 17, 2021 1:40pm

My favourite film of that year.
My second favourite is JOKER.