Greta Gerwig’s adaptation earns laughter and tears by refusing to be anything less than empathetic towards its characters
Unfortunately, I only know Little Women by reputation alone. I know the book is beloved by millions, that it’s spawned six past feature film adaptations. Up until this seventh version of Louisa May Alcott’s tale, though, I remained without any previous experience with Little Women — in book or movie form. When Greta Gerwig announced Little Women as her next self-penned project, I knew it was time to take the plunge.
Little Women follows the chaotic ordinary lives of the four March sisters in Civil War and Reconstruction-era Connecticut, New York, and Paris. Fiery-spirited Jo (Saorise Ronan) dreams of being a published writer; Amy (Florence Pugh) is determined to perfect her painting and become a successful artist; society-minded Meg (Emma Watson) eagerly awaits finding a suitable match to preserve the March family’s good name; and shy, awkward Beth (Eliza Scanlen), long-suffering from assorted illnesses, takes small pleasures where she can with her family, not wanting to make waves where she feels she isn’t wanted. The March sisters are brought up by their fiercely independent mother (Laura Dern) in a world where women are wholly expected to do as many jobs as they can while the men are off to war, with little recognition given of their efforts or individual identity. In spite of these societal limitations, the four March sisters forge their own wildly diverging paths, ones where childhood dreams either come to fruition or wither in the wake of the realities of adulthood.
From her roles in Frances Ha and 20th Century Women, Greta Gerwig has demonstrated a remarkable ability to create fleshed out, compelling characters who are beloved because of their flaws, rather than in spite of them — an ability she translated to each of her characters in her solo writing-directing breakthrough Lady Bird. Given the original novel’s generation-spanning cultural clout, Little Women seems both prime for a revisit and a more than formidable challenge for Gerwig as a writer-director. It’s a gauntlet, though, that Gerwig manages to pass with incredible ease: with one of the year’s best ensembles anchored by an ambitious and emotionally-rich screenplay, Little Women quickly joins the ranks of one of 2019’s best films.
While again I’m not too familiar with the source material, I do know that Gerwig’s biggest liberty taken with the screenplay is her choice of non-linear storytelling. Throughout Little Women, Gerwig jumps back and forth through time, exploring the effects of her characters’ decisions or the origins for their motivations with immediacy instead of decades’ worth of setups and payoffs. While some have taken umbrage with this choice, I felt it was one of Little Women’s greatest strengths. Gerwig’s elliptical, self-referential editing and cinematography choices draw what can otherwise be described as melancholic belly laughs, showing how hilariously naive we can all be when we’re young without coming at the expense of how hard it can be to finally accept that some of our passions will never come to be. One particular sequence late in the film involving a descent down a staircase hits hardest — playing into those moments where the most unexpected tragedies feel almost universally choreographed in their inevitability thanks to hindsight.
The most defining characteristic Greta Gerwig gives her take on Little Women, though, is a remarkably universal capacity for empathy. While Gerwig never loses focus on the four March sisters, the film still showcases many brief asides with the supporting cast. Matriarch Marmee allows for brief solitary moments of panic or grief before composing herself for her family. After assuring Beth that no one will be around to hear her play his piano, the gruff, intimating Mr. Lawrence (Chris Cooper) listens to her play in tears, reminded of his lost daughter. Gerwig stages these moments of quiet anguish as she does with every other moment in the film — not just with warmth and intimacy, but a strong degree of vulnerability.
This prevents Little Women from falling victim to the proper stoicism of other period pieces, giving plenty of room for its characters, big and small, to experience and express emotions often left offscreen or suppressed in the name of social decorum. Not only does Gerwig encourage her audience to see these characters as flesh and blood, but assures us that it’s just as valid to feel those same emotions ourselves.
By investing her audience in the internal lives of major and minor characters with equal compassion and dexterity, it’s almost impossible to not find some facet of Little Women to fall in love with — if not the whole film outright as I did.
Little Women will be released in theaters December 25th courtesy of Columbia Pictures.