LITTLE WOMEN: Old Story, New Masterpiece

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is one of those books that is so well-known and so often adapted that it’s fair to wonder, ‘Wait, another one?’ when someone new decides to give a whirl. The quintessential ‘coming of age as a young woman in New England’ tale was last brought to the big screen in 1994 by Gillian Armstrong with a cast of big names and future names, including Winona Ryder, a pre-teen Kirsten Dunst, and an off-puttingly pretty-boy Christian Bale.

Greta Gerwig’s masterful new take on the material, now available to rent and buy on physical and digital media, very quickly stakes its claim as a vital and fresh interpretation of this well-worn story. Gerwig (who wrote the adaptation along with directing) knows that a significant portion of her audience knows every beat of the book by heart, and that gives her the liberty to be playful and loose in a way that more a stately incarnation perhaps couldn’t be.

Gerwig’s big gambit is to play with the timeline of what has always been a very linear progression towards adulthood for the titular miniscule females. Little Women ’19 opens in the aftermath of the Civil War with the March sisters scattered to different winds: tomboy writer Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is making a living as a tutor and selling stories in New York City; eldest sister Meg (Emma Watson) is a struggling mother of two; baby sister Amy (Florence Pugh) is touring Europe with the girls’ bitter, wealthy aunt (Meryl Streep); and quiet, sweet Beth (Eliza Scanlen) remains at home in the final stages of a long illness.

From there, the film flashes back to the more iconic moments of the girls’ youth as they inhabit a world both fraught (their father is off fighting for the Union Army in the Civil War) and magical, occupying a Massachusetts so picturesque they might as well be living inside of a snow globe. Gerwig and editor Nick Houy nimbly leap through time with cold, enclosed spaces of adulthood giving way to sun-drenched seasonal vistas of colorful autumns, glowing summers, and scenic winters (it’s hack to say that a film’s location is like a character in that film, but as shot by Yorick Le Saux, Massachusetts is a vibrant player in the proceedings).

There are hard times even during these happier days, but through the framing of memory even the incidents that run from traumatic to terrifying have a sort of magical tinge to them.

This structure puts a major onus on the actresses playing the March sisters to toggle their temperaments between maturity and immaturity. Ronan is so assured a leading lady that you don’t even necessarily need the lighting changes to know which era of Jo you are looking at. It’s there in the way she carries herself and in the way she reacts to the people around her, all without ever losing sight of the central energy and will that defines who Jo March is.

Pugh is playing a more radical divide, as Amy is meant to be all of 12 when the story starts and an adult woman by the end. Typically directors have opted to cast a child to play the child and an adult to play the adult, but Gerwig decided to let Pugh play both halves despite looking…not like a 12-year-old. That’s a tall order for any performer, but Pugh makes it look easy. She’s unapologetic about the brattiest, nastiest behaviors that Amy displays, and because it’s the same performer the later moments of maturity and poise count for so much more than if another actress tagged in. By the film’s end, Amy has become the film’s beating heart and its truest moral compass, and Pugh carefully notches every step of that road.

Watson as Meg and Scanlen as Beth do not have arcs that dynamic, but they fully inhabit characters who could have easily been one-note and bring to them a complicated humanity. Meg is the sister who’s happy to marry and settle down, while Beth is the too-good-for-this-world living angel with ‘doomed’ stamped on her forehead, but both Watson and Scanlen imbue their character with layers of humor, sadness, and anger that help make the emotional peaks and valleys sing. And most importantly, you buy these four girls being sisters, with all the complicated layers of love and animosity that are baked into any tight-knit family.

Helping and hindering the girls on their diverse roads to adulthood is an ever-expanding ensemble; all supported Gerwig’s superhuman streak of empathy, allowing time for even the smallest role to register as a fully-formed person.

Laura Dern as the girls’ mother Marmee could easily have been a caricature of saintly motherhood, yet Dern peppers her performance with moments of both despair and rage to better allow you to understand what fuels this woman to so many acts of selfless kindness. And on the other end of the spectrum, Meryl Streep is having a grand old time playing a hard-bitten, venom-tongued spinster, but she allows the appearance of just enough cracks in the armor that the audience can appreciate her motives, even if we never truly accept her actions.

As Laurie, the boy who loves Jo despite all her warnings to him never to do so, Timothée Chalamet shows off the easy chemistry he shared with Ronan in Gerwig’s last movie, the brilliant Lady Bird. Even with their character dynamics completely flipped from that film, Chalamet and Ronan are magical together, and Chalamet’s goofball energy in the flashback sections help make his performance as the embittered, nasty version of Laurie we see in the framing sections all the more painful to witness.

Tracy Letts (so warm in Lady Bird, so prickly in Ford v Ferrari) scores major points in his brief turn as Mr. Dashwood, an editor who verbally spars with Jo a few times, and Bob Odenkirk’s innate Odenkirk-iness is a strong short-hand for when Mr. March finally makes an appearance. And I want to give a special shout out to Chris Cooper as Mr. Laurence, Laurie’s wealthy grandfather who takes a shine to Beth because she reminds him of his own deceased daughter. Cooper has always been very effective playing creeps and hard-asses, doing it for decades now. He’s Tex Richman, for God’s sake. But Little Women ’19 is less interested in his craggy face than in his sad, soulful eyes. There’s a scene where he sits outside a room while Beth plays inside, and it’s a gorgeous, moving grace note that you imagine nine out of ten filmmakers wouldn’t find the time for.

But both of Gerwig’s directorial efforts are masterpieces woven from these tiny intimacies. Lady Bird (a movie I adore with all my heart) knew the value of letting the camera sit on someone’s face for that half-second longer than most films would, the importance of those tossed-off incidents that don’t seem like much as a teenager but that are so vital to the person you eventually become. And Little Women ’19 gets that as well, how it’s the smallest gestures that tell you who a person is, and how it’s the most off-hand moments that define a family.

And it’s in how it captures a family that Little Women ’19 really hits me.

Needless personal tangent: I’m the third oldest of seven kids. I literally do not remember a time in my life where our house wasn’t already stuffed to bursting. A house with that many siblings is its own functioning world with rituals, rules, its own lore, and specific ways of doing things. As time has gone on, the over-stuffed house has only grown even more stuffed, with girlfriends, boyfriends, friends, children, pets, you name it. Even as we keep moving away and spinning our lives into different directions, there’s a magnetic force to that old house and many is the occasion when it swells back up with our returns and added faces.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that dynamic captured anywhere on film as well as it is in Little Women ’19. Gerwig captures not only the manic energy of a busy household where everyone is on top of everyone else, but also the way a household can have its own gravity. Rich, lonely Laurie is mesmerized by the humble, vibrant abode of the March family and is soon brought into the fold, followed shortly thereafter by his grandfather, and that’s before they start adding on romantic acquisitions and later generations.

As I watched the March family expand, I couldn’t help but flash to the way the same thing has occurred to the Foley family. It’s been the greatest blessing of this life, and hopefully we can all get right back to it once this goddamn virus thing is resolved. But for over two hours, Gerwig envelops you in the beautiful dream that is loving and being loved, that is knowing and being known, that is the wonderful, awful, amazing, terrifying, powerful bonds of family.

After only two at-bats as a director, it’s clear that Greta Gerwig is one of the best, most exciting directors currently working in American cinema, and I am foaming at the mouth to see whatever she does next.

In the meantime, get cozy with the people you love and give a watch to her Little Women.

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