LITTLE WOMEN (Movie Review)

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG
(for thematic elements and brief smoking)
Released: December 25, 2019
Runtime: 134 minutes
Directed by: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, Meryl Streep, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Bob Odenkirk

Greta Gerwig‘s new adaptation of Little Women isn’t the best way to experience this timeless story for the first time, but it’s a beautiful, inspired, and deeply rewarding way to re-experience it anew.

Taking a non-linear approach to the beloved classic – a story that many women know as intimately as their own diaries (and feel as fervidly about) – Gerwig (Lady Bird) is faithful to Louisa May Alcott’s book but in inventive ways.

There’s some creative license, yes, but none that is defiant or subversive to the text; each liberty is wisely considered, with purpose. This is a re-imagining of what’s there, not a rewrite; a rethinking of elements in meta ways, with an expansion of passages that previous adaptations have either cut short or completely ignored.

The result bridges the gap between Alcott’s fictional surrogate Jo March and the creator herself, turning Little Women from a semi-autobiographical fiction into something closer to a personal memoir, to such a degree that author and alter ego become one as never before. In doing so, Gerwig venerates Alcott as the literary pioneer who paved the way for all women storytellers who’d follow, and serve as an inspiration even today.

It’s also, in a sense, the movie version of a book club discussion, with Gerwig sharing through an inspired retelling how Little Women has spoken to her throughout her life, and how it’s speaking to her now.

If Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film is the gold standard of what a quintessential adaption of Little Women should be, akin to reading the book itself, then Gerwig’s is like how to think and talk about the book, a consequential companion piece overflowing with riches all its own. The two movies work together as different sisters from the same mother, each with their own personalities, perspectives and passions, but united in their very souls as only sisters can be.

At first, that bond feels faint. Gerwig begins her telling deep into Alcott’s novel, when the March sisters are young adults and some have left the confines of their hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. From there, the narrative unfolds out of order, jumping back and forth in time.

There’s an intrigue to that because, even if you know the story, you don’t know which part of it is coming next. But it can be a bit jarring, too, and could prove confusing for those not familiar with the source.

More to the point, the non-linear structure initially causes the story to lose some of its power. The emotional entry points haven’t been earned and early moments lack context. Gerwig essentially requires an existing affection for these characters and their circumstances to resonate. That’s especially true for the first act since we, as viewers, haven’t fully acclimated to these specific actors or their takes on the material and roles that we know so well. It’s all beautifully wrought with idyllic period detail and spirited vitality, but a bit disjointed.

Yet just as fear of a letdown seems likely for this sacred American prose, the genius of Gerwig’s framework begins to emerge. Her non-linear construct isn’t random; it’s assembled and thoughtful with intentional design, specifically pairing past-and-future moments so that each informs the other. The hopes and dreams of childhood are paralleled against the realities of adulthood, causing familiar material to come alive with new meaning (Meg’s marriage to John is a great example; so, too, is the expanded depiction of Amy and Laurie’s romance).

These juxtapositions become increasingly poignant, and the affect is deeply moving. If a traditional adaptation of Little Women emphasizes a warm nostalgia for coming-of-age, Gerwig’s approach is more reflective, sober, and mature, but never cynical. The defeats and setbacks of youth (or of any age) hit harder with intimate devastation.

It gives these characters more dimension, too; Jo especially. Saoirse Ronan takes the feisty spunk of our driven heroine and layers her with impatient stubbornness and obnoxious certainty, with an inability to appreciate other perspectives or genuinely hear people apart from her own filter. Tenacity is both a strength and fault for her Jo; it causes hurts and leads to regrets. But the fallout of these flaws are what forge Jo’s maturation, too, not only as a person but as a writer.

The interiority of the other sisters (richly explored by Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen) is just as honest, full, and credible as Jo’s, making their arcs all the more substantial and satisfying.

Certainly much of that satisfaction comes from the unbridled exuberance of youth, in the stories they stage together in their attic to how their new neighbor Laurie affects each of them over time (Timothée Chalamet broods and charms with equal elan). There’s quiet tenderness as well in the bond that forms between a reticent Beth and the grieving Mr. Lawrence (Chris Cooper).

Laura Dern gives Marmee the comforting gravitas you’d hope for, and Meryl Streep pops in like the Dowager from Downton for the occasional sharp-tongued truth. Of all the characters, though, Friedrich is Gerwig’s most drastic re-conception, one that initially comes off as a hunky bit of romance-pandering but, as the journey evolves, he becomes exactly the kind of man — unassuming, and of sincere faith — that this Jo needs.

If Alcott’s original rendering is meant for girls, then Gerwig’s is for the women they grow up to be. Her take on Little Women doesn’t pull any punches or soften sharp edges with sentiment, yet ultimately she leaves us on a high of sheer emotional ecstasy that only a true artist of keen wisdom and earnest heart can provoke.

By the end, Gerwig hasn’t simply taken us through the story we love. She helps us feel what’s been lost for the March sisters, and what they’ve earned.

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