If you are one of those people who has heard of “Little Women” for your entire life yet somehow never got around to reading it, you might have trouble following second-time director Greta Gerwig’s respectfully deconstructed new film adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel.
That is not meant to be read as a negative; it’s merely a mild warning that someone expecting straightforward linear storytelling from a film based on a 150-year-old book might have to pay close attention in order to keep up with what’s going on, since the director takes a decidedly contemporary narrative approach in this smart, richly realized period romance – for a romance it is, albeit one flavored by post-modern irony.
Gerwig was hired by Sony Pictures to write the script for the planned adaptation – the eighth big-screen incarnation of the novel – back in 2016, before her awards-season victory lap following the release of “Lady Bird,” her feature directing debut. The success of that film resulted in the studio asking her to direct “Little Women” herself.
It was a smart decision. With the same razor-sharp insight and humanistic wisdom she brought to her previous effort, Gerwig lovingly dissects Alcott’s 19th century tale to illuminate it from within, jumping back and forth through time in order to connect the dots between the narrative’s themes, and inviting audiences to ponder the way those threads still run through our contemporary culture today.
Despite the potentially jarring narrative style, it’s not necessary to know the plot going in; but to sum up, “Little Women” is the story of the four young daughters of the March family – Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth – as they grow from young girls into young women. Nurtured by a loving mother (whom they call “Marmee”) in the absence of their father, who is ministering to wounded soldiers in the wake of the Civil War, they also form bonds with their wealthy neighbor and his handsome grandson, Laurie, helping to shape their lives as they grow toward adulthood.
It’s a straightforward saga from a modern perspective, though the book has been lauded as groundbreaking for its time – its subtle challenge deeply encoded cultural expectations influenced generations of young female readers who related to its four heroines’ misgivings about the constrained social roles that await them in adult life, and was praised by renowned critic and author G.K. Chesterson for having “anticipated realism by twenty or thirty years.” It’s precisely those forward-thinking qualities that Gerwig brings to her reinterpretation, and they help her to create a movie that is neither merely a well-made and pleasant period drama, nor a savvy, subversive think piece, but a film that works equally well as both.
The production values are a contributing factor, of course. The obvious high quality of the filmmaking talents involved behind the scenes provides a solid base from which Gerwig can build her vision; Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography evokes the natural-light-infused grainy glow of the great mid-seventies period films of directors like Kubrick and Altman, the costumes by Jacqueline Durran underscore important themes by capturing the subtle variations of women’s attire mandated by fashion and social class, and the score from Oscar-winner Alexandre Desplat strikes a delicate balance by maintaining the restrained conventions of 19th-century music while letting a more modern, free-spirited playfulness run throughout.
It’s in the performances, of course, that the film is able to break free from the conditions of its 150-year-old source material. Emma Watson (Meg), Florence Pugh (Amy), and Eliza Scanlen (Beth) all bring heartbreaking honesty to their roles, while Laura Dern’s Marmee is a sublime portrait of idealized motherhood that transcends sentiment through the authenticity of her compassion. Meryl Streep delivers a characteristically layered supporting turn as cantankerous-but-kind-hearted spinster Aunt March, and Chris Cooper rises above the maudlin tendencies of melancholy-but-sweet neighbor Mr. Laurence.
To single out Timothée Chalamet’s Laurie when every performance is a standout might be egregious, especially in a film that is ultimately about women; but the young actor brings such a sense of immediacy to each moment that he cannot be overlooked. Indeed, he’s a young actor whose charisma makes him the focus every time he’s onscreen, and he does not waste that gift. He takes this notoriously opaque, underwritten character and gives him a powerfully multi-dimensional specificity that makes us see the fragile, confused human heart that beats beneath his sometimes callow, often faithless surface and makes us love him as much as the March girls inevitably do.
Even so, the movie belongs to Saoirse Ronan, and appropriately so. As Jo, she is every bit the plucky female “All-American Girl” heroine, but her version of that stereotype looks like modern-day girl power. She makes the character’s journey a struggle to hold onto that power, from naïve overconfidence through personal hardship to humble-yet-emphatic reclamation of her own agency, and she takes us with her every step of the way.
She also takes on the double duty of serving as a stand-in both for author Alcott, who wrote Jo with clear autobiographical parallels, and director Gerwig, who in her vision takes on the burden of speaking feminine truth in a medium dominated by masculine power, just as Alcott did when she fought against the insistence of her publisher (male, of course) that she marry off her proto-feminist heroine at the end of the book. The writer lost that fight, compromising to meet his demands in order to ensure publication, and inevitably resulting in enduring criticism that “Little Women,” for all its supposed progressiveness around women’s rights, ultimately validated the ruling paradigm that a woman who wasn’t a wife and a mother was irrelevant.
By taking on the author’s mantle, however, Gerwig gets the last word for both of them. She makes the real-life history of Alcott’s creative dispute part of Jo’s story as well, both subverting the intention of the imposed “happy ending” and exonerating the author by portraying her – or at least her fictional alter-ego – as a savvy, self-aware woman who knew she was winning the war by surrendering the battle. The fact that the director simultaneously makes us hope for that same happy ending simply serves to highlight the skill with which she navigates the complex myriad of perspectives she brings to her film.
It’s because of this that Gerwig – just as with her debut effort – becomes the real star of her movie without ever stepping in front of the camera. She establishes herself here as a female auteur – a rarity in the still-misogynistic Hollywood film machine – that has the personal vision it takes to bring home the narrative’s ultimate truth that these “Little Women” chafe at the boundaries forced upon them by society, and that each, in their way, nurses a longing to break free.
That’s something with which most of us – male or female, gay or straight, or anywhere between either of those increasingly outdated binaries – can surely relate, and it makes “Little Women” a sure bet for a trip to the movies this holiday season.