In this overpopulated age of remakes, reboots, and re-imaginings, how do you find a new path in on a property that’s already been told on the big and small screen over a dozen times? Filmmaker Greta Gerwig has managed to make something quite new out of Little Women, the classic and over-exposed Louisa May Alcott novel. She directs the old chestnut with breezy, contemporary energy, shaking up the structure, the casting, and giving it a modern feminist feel.
Telling the tale of Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), a headstrong young woman trying to navigate her way through an adult world echoes the theme of Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated Best Picture Lady Bird in 2017. Lady Bird McPherson (Ronan there, too) lacked focus and follow-thru in her ambitions, earning the doubt of her family and classmates. In Little Women, Jo is laser-focused as she chases her dreams of becoming a writer with utter zeal. The obstacle in this heroine’s way is not her own immaturity, but rather 19th-century patriarchal society.
As the film starts, Jo visits big-city editor Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) with a manuscript, hoping that he’ll publish it. He likes her story and agrees to put it into print. Then Dashwood implores her to write another, advising her to “make it short and spicy, and if the main character is a girl, make sure she’s married by the end.” It’s foreshadowing, of course, but Gerwig’s adaptation of the famed novel will find many slyer ways to get there.
For starters, as we get to know Jo and her lively sisters, Gerwig continually showcases them as much smarter, stronger emotionally, and resilient than most of the men around them. In past productions, the conservative Meg (Emma Watson) was painted as a compromised character, choosing marriage over her acting ambitions. Here, it’s deemed her choice for a more stable life, and Watson plays it as the decision of a bold, clearheaded adult.
Gerwig applies such modernity to all of the female characters. Even the doomed Beth is stronger here, indicated by the casting of Eliza Scanlen, a young actress with a steely gaze. (Scanlen is strong, but still can’t seem to get out of those sickbeds, just like in that last episode of Sharp Objects.) Momma Marmee is bolder and more opinionated than any adult male in the room in this version, even instructing the wealthy Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) what to do in this crisis and that. Marmee appears to be just fine without her husband around too, and when he shows up played by wishy-washy “Jimmy McGill” himself, Bob Odenkirk, we realize that Gerwig’s casting is underlining that fact. The director also burnishes off all of Cooper’s usual edges.
Most distinctly modern is Florence Pugh’s, Amy. In previous adaptations, Amy usually comes off like a bit of a brat. Here though, she’s much more likable, wittily droll, and as knowing of a woman’s potential as Jo. If anything, Amy here seems less naive about the ways of the world than her older sister.
Amy’s interactions with Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, played by Timothee Chalamet, suggest a more genuine connection than the one he had with Jo too, hinting at how he might have been eaten alive by her had they married. Gerwig shows Amy calling the shots in their relationship too, making Laurie all the more a recessive character than in previous adaptations.
Ronan is always exceptional and imbues Jo here with a ton of wit that keeps us on her side even when she can be a pickled pill. Meryl Streep is prickly too, suggesting an extravagantly haughty Aunt March. Streep is all withering put-downs and side-eyes here, though Gerwig clearly sides with such opinions. She adapted the script, after all, and is using such mouthpieces to speak truth to the silly rules of 19th century Massachusetts by way of the male-dominated hierarchy.
The rhythms of Gerwig’s editing ensure that this period piece feels fresh and contemporary too. Rather than telling the film in chronological order, Gerwig cuts back and forth between two time periods – the present and nine years earlier. The earlier days are shot with more of an idyllic glow as well, reflecting a better time for the March clan. For the decade later, when all kinds of problems arise, Gerwig’s lighting and color palate darken.
At times, the editing is too self-aware, overt in juxtaposing irony or commentary from one era to the other. Gerwig loves showing Jo run too, in both time periods, often buttressed up against each other in the cut. Occasionally, it’s hard to tell which period the story is taking place in with less differentiation in the lighting, but by and large, Gerwig keeps her time periods separate and trackable.
The production design is gorgeous to a fault, suggesting a Hallmark card perfection that never existed in the world. At times, the middle-classed March home appears far too tony and posh as well. Even their clothes look unlived in at times. Gerwig misjudges the classic scene where Marmee instructs her daughters to sacrifice their holiday breakfast for poor neighbors as the spread is so vast it looks like it could feed the entire neighborhood.
Gerwig makes better choices in smarter adjustments for modern sensibilities, like portraying Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel) as much closer in age to Ronan’s Jo. None of the men are bullies, and even Letts, who can do stiff-collared pricks in his sleep, chuckles as he is won over by the logical Jo.
This take on Little Women is passionately about female empowerment, more than even Alcott could have imagined as a maverick in her time. Such sentiments are never more evident than when Gerwig has Jo watch her first published book roll off the presses. She gazes upon its creation with the watchful eyes of a mother. Indeed, that book is her baby. Jo takes Dashwood’s advice and does end her story with marriage, but the real love of Jo’s life is those pages. And Gerwig makes certain none of us miss it.
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