THE STORY – Following the lives of four sisters, Amy, Jo, Beth and Meg, as they come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War. Though all very different from each other, the March sisters stand by each other through difficult and changing times.
THE CAST – Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet & Meryl Streep
THE TEAM – Greta Gerwig (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 124 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
Coming off the heels of her solo directing debut “Lady Bird,” which got her Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, Greta Gerwig had a huge opportunity to tackle any project she wanted to do next. After last year’s complaints that “A Star Is Born” did not have to be remade again (and of course, those people were proven wrong), Greta Gerwig drew similar criticism when it was announced that she would be adapting Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel “Little Women” to the screen, most famously adapted in 1994 starring Winona Ryder, Christian Bale & Susan Sarandon. Assembling a cast of internet favorites including Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Emma Watson, Meryl Streep and more, Gerwig, like Cooper last year, brings all of the aspects that we love about this story to this new version. She infuses it with the same hip modern style she brought to “Lady Bird,” while maintaining respect for the source material and proves that with Alcott’s themes, this story is indeed timeless, even on the eighth adaptation.
“Little Women” tells the story of the March family in 1860’s New England after the American Civil War, specifically Marmee March’s (Laura Dern) four daughters Josephine “Jo” March (Saoirse Ronan), Margaret “Meg” March (Emma Watson), Amy March (Florence Pugh), and Elizabeth “Beth” March (Eliza Scanlen). Anxiously waiting for their father (Bob Odenkirk) to return home from the war, the four siblings all take a role in their household of supporting each other through tough times with very little money all the while, attempting to pursue their own dreams. Jo has dreams of becoming a writer, Meg dreams of becoming an actress and Amy dreams of becoming an artist. While perusing their dreams, they all face hardships in the form of society’s pressure to marry wealthy, the ceiling of limitation that society put on women to achieve anything outside of marrying and bearing children and the complexities of the human heart, which is made more complicated by the introduction of their next-door neighbor and childhood friend Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Chalamet).
There is so much to dissect with “Little Women,” but I would much rather focus on Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” and the things she does to make this latest version standout among all of the others. The biggest thing that most will pick up on is, while it is shot in the traditional sense with gorgeous film stock cinematography by Yorick Le Saux, the storytelling is incredibly modern. This is exemplified by the film’s dialogue. It’s extremely fast-paced, often overlapping and with a rhythm one would find in a contemporary quirky independent film. Gerwig understands these characters so well and her adaptation grants even the smaller roles in the source material fully formed personalities and character arcs that feel proper and balanced.
Every actor receives a moment to shine in this film through Greta’s storytelling and the biggest benefactor of this is Florence Pugh’s Amy March. Whether she’s delivering a tremendous monologue on marriage being an economic proposition to Laurie, or she’s emotionally having to come to grips with having played second fiddle to Jo her entire life, Pugh relishes in every scene, every line, and every beat, giving Amy more depth than she’s ever had before. With such a star-studded and across the board terrific ensemble, her performance stood out the most to me. Saoirse Ronan is perfect casting for the rebellious and creative Jo March. She is a force of nature that cannot be contained, even by the economic and misogynist trappings of that time. “What Jo wills, shall be done” and indeed, Ronan brings determination and brimming life, for an already rich character on the page, to even greater heights. Timothée Chalamet is well cast as the hopeless romantic and misguided Laurie. Emma Watson’s Meg gets a substantial amount of screentime to communicate the economic hardships of the time and how important it was to marry wealthy in order to obtain an easier life. Laura Dern, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts (who bookends the film with Saoirse Ronan as an imposing publisher) and Meryl Streep (having a ball playing the obnoxiously wealthy and unmarried Aunt March) all receive moments from Gerwig’s script to perfectly communicate who their characters are, how they impact the four main March women and never overshadow the main performances. It’s truly one of the best ensembles of the year in terms of its variety and utilization.
On a technical level, Gerwig makes a great leap forward from her work on “Lady Bird” with “Little Women.” I already mentioned the cinematography but the production design also deserves special mention. Sets such as Amy’s art workshop, the various homes that display levels of class disparity and simply, the overall level of depth and detail for the era feels authentic and transportive — never artificial. The costuming is naturally gorgeous, as we’ve seen in many period dramas. But Alexandre Desplat’s score is the real winner here, as his melodies, use of strings and piano help to give “Little Women” a vibrant quality that is both beautiful and melancholy, as the highs and lows of these characters are explored.
There is, however, one major drawback which prevents “Little Women” from comfortably solidifying itself as one of my top 10 favorite films of the year. As it stands, it’s simply one of my many favorites of the year. The film’s singular issue is the editing. Gerwig has one title card which flashes on the screen indicating that the timeline is jumping around with a seven-year difference however, it does indeed take a while to get used to the narrative’s constant hopping around. There is no apparent makeup or aging effects to indicate that a time-jump has occurred (at first). However, after the first 15 minutes or so, there are subtle details that better let us in on when the timeline has changed: characters are either together or separated, Amy and Jo’s hair changes, the present timeline’s cinematography is cooler while the past is warmer, etc. Odd instances of slow-motion and characters breaking the fourth wall are other examples where the editing threatened to take me out of what Gerwig was achieving with her writing, visuals and the work of the ensemble. I suspect those who are unfamiliar with the story of “Little Women” will have greater difficulty easing their way into the story than I initially did, but with patience and a bit of effort, they will find that Gerwig’s version of this beloved story is one of, if not the best one yet.
Jo writes about the domestic troubles of life that she and her sisters have experienced and even though it takes place in a different time, the themes of economic and gender inequality, still resonate deeper than ever. It may have been initially confusing to some why Gerwig decided for her follow up to “Lady Bird,” to adapt a story that has been adapted many times before. However, the story of familial bonds in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, and those fulfilled or heartbroken by life, is one of both uplifting joy and tragic reality. This is perfectly encapsulated by the film’s pitch-perfect ending which steals a page out of “La La Land’s” book, presenting two versions for the audience, satisfying both needs and making it practically impossible to walk away from Gerwig’s film feeling unfulfilled. There are so many other details and surprises within Gerwig’s adaptation that I don’t wish to spoil here, for even if you already know the story, you owe it to yourself to give this marvelous film a watch with a fresh perspective. It may be the end of childhood for all of the March women, but it is the journey and lessons they learn along the way that makes them stronger and more vital than ever to a new generation.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A well utilized and balanced ensemble who make these beloved characters come alive off the page in ways never seen before with previous adaptations. Credit to that also goes towards Greta Gerwig’s thoughtful, fully fleshed out writing that manages to communicate numerous themes and story arcs. Gorgeous cinematography, costumes, production design and score.
THE BAD – The film’s editing takes a while to get used to as it jumps back and forth between two time-periods with a lack of clarity, especially for those unfamiliar with the story.