This century’s first film adaptation of Little Women opens with Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) standing in front of a foggy glass door, a gateway from the cozy domestic circle with which women like her are supposed to be content into the colder but more thrilling world of men. She opens the door and strides with striking purpose across the smoky room of a publishing house, the camera following her past dark wooden desks occupied by men in black suits who think they know what girls want to read. Jo takes a seat in front of one of these men, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), her knees bouncing and her fingertips stained with ink. The story her “friend” has submitted for publication will do just fine after some revisions, Mr. Dashwood tells her, but she, or her “friend” should remember that “If the main character’s a girl, make sure she’s married by the end.”
Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel sticks to this directive, but not without taking its own jabs at the Victorian idea of “the angel in the house,” the selflessly devoted, submissive wife and mother. Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s version of Little Women remixes the story in order to highlight Alcott’s refined howls of protest, while also even considering some of the text’s flaws and compromises. Gerwig does this primarily by liberating Little Women from the restraints of chronology, weaving together the lives of the March sisters from early adolescence to young womanhood on a timeline that jumps to characters and decades with remarkable ease. It’s a clever twist on the material, putting the sunnier and sadder sides in conversation with each other. And its accomplished mostly through an eye for visual patterns and character-based detail that underlines Gerwig’s empathy and affection for these four central women.
The primary mood of the first half of Little Women is cheerful chaos, the camera scrambling to keep up in tracking shots following Jo and her sisters, Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), through their shabby but comfortable Massachusetts home. The Marches seem to be doing alright financially, but they’re not as rich as the Laurences, who live next door. They’re a bachelor household and frequently turn to the March girls for emotional support. But they’re also not as poor as the Hummels who live down the road, with whom the sisters’ saintly mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), insists the girls share their Christmas breakfast. The sisters’ abolitionist pastor father, Mr. March (Bob Odenkirk), is away volunteering in the Civil War, turning the March household into a matriarchal incubator for ambition and imagination insulated from the expectations of the outside world. That is, except those of their wealthy, finger-wagging Aunt (Meryl Streep), who insists that at least one of the March sisters marry a rich man in order to ensure the family’s financial future. Gerwig and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux reflect this loving environment with the warm glow of candles and golden sunlight that stays consistent throughout the seasons (the super 35mm brings a staggering painterly quality to the compositions). One day, this light will grow cold and gray as Jo and her sisters’ dreams collide with reality, but not as of today.
Jo views marriage as a death sentence, but her eldest sister Meg is obsessed with romance and decorum, which she sees as one whole package. Over the years, the character of Meg has been received and portrayed as an uptight scold, but Gerwig likes her too much to share that interpretation. Here, Meg is both a big dreamer and a compassionate realist who wants what’s best for those she loves. On a similar level, youngest sister Amy has sometimes been played as a hellacious brat in previous adaptations. Which is in some parts true, she can be jealous and vindictive, but Gerwig understands that her tantrums are driven by a premature cynicism. Pugh as Amy is arguably the standout of an already great ensemble. Her performance is actually bolstered by the bifurcated structure, as Pugh emphasizes Amy’s headstrong nature in both timelines, while highlighting the subtle ways it shifts from petulance to fearsome intelligence over the years. Even sweet, gentle, doomed Beth is more than a peaked symbol of feminine self-sacrifice in this Little Women, finding moments of near-spiritual satisfaction playing the piano in the parlor of the Laurence’s luxurious, lifeless house as Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) listens on the other side of the wall in moving silence. And although Little Women sometimes shares Jo’s doubts, it never loses faith in its fiery protagonist and her decisions.
In one of the more savvy casting moves, Timothée Chalamet plays the lost, playboy, sometimes jerk next door, Laurie. And that’s not just because he and Ronan have a pre-existing rapport from their work on Gerwig’s previous Lady Bird. With his floppy hair and soulful eyes, Chalamet is also the ideal canvas onto which the March girls — and, by extension, the audience — can sketch all manner of anxieties and desires. Little Women doesn’t prioritize romantic love over other kinds of intimacy and affection, but neither does it dismiss the need for such love as incompatible with being an independent woman. In fact, for the stubborn Jo, admitting that she’s lonely is a bigger challenge than leaving home to pursue her writing career. As with all the film’s emotional beats, the romantic tension between the characters develops organically, with just a little boost from Alexandre Desplat’s ravishing, stirring score. Compared to the slow crescendo of the love stories, the film’s brush with death sometimes feels empty and sudden, but then again, it can feel that way in real life, too.
Gerwig’s overarching project with Little Women is building a fantasy space where girls can explore their identities in a safe, encouraging environment, whether it’s true love or artistic glory they long for. In one of the film’s more pointed feminist subtexts, Gerwig hints at a contrast between the idyllic ending of Jo’s story (in the novel) and the reality of Alcott’s life as a woman creator in 19th-century America (and what Alcott actually wanted the ending to be). Little Women is the best kind of Hollywood film: thoughtful yet escapist, sophisticated yet accessible, expertly crafted and pretty affecting. While I didn’t always feel Meg’s plotline was fully developed, which effected me investing into it, Gerwig’s direction was still pretty first rate, her use of symbolism and composition helped strongly reinforce the emotional arcs of the material. The film tweaks the structure of a well-known and beloved story and modernizes it with light meta touches, all while staying true to its old-fashioned belief in the virtues of kindness and selflessness. As well-known as the story may be, Greta Gerwig finds ways to make her Little Women tale her own, and it’s lush, warm, vibrant and full of so much joyous and bittersweet life. It’s an execution and project that seemingly only Greta Gerwig could do.