Over 150 years since Louisa May Alcott’s beloved “Little Women” was first published, filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s sophomore effort makes the case that it’s as relevant as ever. Despite those lofty goals, the “Lady Bird” director doesn’t get heavy-handed or preachy in her affectionate look at the March sisters, who were always styled as very different versions of evolving womanhood, even way back in the mid-19th century. Instead, Gerwig’s adaptation looks at the eponymous little women through ambitious storytelling techniques that modernize the book’s timeless story in unexpected ways.
However, fans of the original novel (and the first-rate 1994 Gillian Armstrong adaptation of Alcott’s book) shouldn’t fret over the contemporary implications of Gerwig’s film. While it’s consumed with questions of ambition, economics, and a woman’s place in the world, “Little Women” is clearly the work of someone steeped in affection for the original, and keenly aware of how the concerns of Alcott and the March sisters (loosely based on the author’s own family) have never quite abated, no matter the time. In short: it’s the same “Little Women” that has endured for centuries, given new life with an original narrative conceit, and a level of craftsmanship that’s nothing short of stunning.
Picking up after the March girls’ childhood has passed, Gerwig’s take on the material is told mostly through the perspective of second eldest March sister Jo (Saoirse Ronan, again proving why she and Gerwig are such a beautiful cinematic match), first introduced as a struggling writer in New York City. Soon enough, Gerwig unspools her storytelling conceit, slipping between time and place, sister and sister, aided by editor Nick Houy, who cuts between scenes through brilliant transitions that will reward repeat viewings: As Jo mentions that her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) is in Paris, the story finds her there; a visit to eldest sister Meg (Emma Watson) ends with a fade that moves from the front door of her small house to the somewhat grander entryway of the March family abode, as the angelic Beth (Eliza Scanlen) wiles away her time, missing her sisters. There is no Jo without Amy, no Meg without Beth. Everything is connected or, at least, every March is connected, just as it should be.
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Gerwig’s elliptical storytelling weaves both past (seven years earlier) and (relative) present with ease — any confusion is swiftly cleared up through her use of different color palettes between the time periods, and occasionally, Jo’s very different haircut — cutting more quickly, and nestling together more closely, as the emotion ramps up. It’s all lightly framed by Jo’s own attempts to spark up her writing career, one compelled by equal parts ambition and necessity (Gerwig is the last person eager to overlook that the book was inspired by Alcott’s own life, including her own sisters and her authorial ambition).
Gerwig’s tweaks help illuminate modern concerns in a dated setting, as Jo’s newest would-be publisher (an uproarious Tracy Letts) encourages her to end her novel on a happy note, with her heroines either married or dead. Jo, of course, isn’t interested in either. That, at least, will never change.
Ronan makes for a vibrant Jo; it’s a credit to both the actress and her director that her portrayal is so different than Winona Ryder’s turn in Armstrong’s adaptation, and yet just as attuned to the character’s soul. Gerwig’s interest in mining the economic concerns of the March family in a more complex way than other takes on the material inspires some of Ronan’s best scenes, from the early elation she feels over selling a story to Letts’ exacting Mr. Dashwood to a wrenching speech in which she unpacks both her terrible ambition and the horrible personal loneliness that it has cost her.
It also sets her in firm opposition to baby sister Amy. While Jo is forced to reckon with the realities of the Marchs’ financial position, often dulling down her own work in order to sell it and finance the family, Amy remains compelled by her artistic ambitions for their own sake. Pugh’s interpretation of the character (long derided as the silliest of sisters) has more dimension than we’ve seen in previous cinematic adaptations of Alcott’s book, owing to both the actress’ incredible performance — which allows Amy to seesaw between the expected frivolity and real depth — and narrative additions from Gerwig that reframe key sequences from her perspective. (Like Jo, Amy gets her own barnburner of a speech about a woman’s place in the world, one that feels both timely and appropriate to the material at hand.)
And, of course, there’s the problem of Laurie (Timothée Chalamet, another smart “Lady Bird” holdover), who enters as a shy stranger immediately besotted by Jo and ends up proving to be the great love of Amy’s life. Gerwig’s bulked-up take on Amy’s inner life also adds fresh facets to Laurie, who similarly vacillates between spoiled child and wise adult as he attempts to make his way in the world.
That way is nothing without the March girls, who storm into his tragic life (orphaned, alone, isolated) and upend every part of it. His distant grandfather (a heartbreaking Chris Cooper) is party to the same full-scale March charm assault, and as they are dazzled at being thrust into the world of women (a scene in which the entire March family all but invades the staid Laurence estate is one of the most breathless and wonderful of any sequence this year), the full magic of the ladies reveals itself.
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Eventually, Gerwig ramps up the crosscutting, weaving her time periods together during the film’s emotional climax (a familiar one to book fans, but given new resonance here), as the movie illuminates the way memory and emotion can collapse into each other, the same story with different endings depending on what one wants from them. Alcott’s story is bigger, better, and more heartbreaking because of it.
Despite Gerwig’s ambitious reaches, “Little Women” still boasts all the classic scenes fans of the book require — Meg’s curling accident, Amy’s rash revenge on Jo, the wonderful gift of a piano — and they’re so beautifully rendered, new audiences will adore them too. (Gorgeous costumes from Jacqueline Durran and lived-in production design from Jess Gonchor only add to the immersive elements of the film; you don’t need to be an Alcott obsessive to feel immediately plunged into the world of the March family.)
“Little Women” isn’t always perfect: A few line readings fall flat — whenever Watson slips out of her American accent, all bets are off — and a handful of characters aren’t given nearly as much dimension as the sisters. Laura Dern’s soft-hearted Marmee is almost too good to be believed, and Bob Odenkirk’s boisterous initial introduction as the March family patriarch feels out of place (though it’s later redeemed during one of the film’s more amusing final sequences). And yet Gerwig and her girls know the hearts and minds of the sisters through and through. “Little Women” is about them above all else.
Halfway through her novel, long before any happy endings or tied-up conclusions (of which Gerwig’s film offers a handful, right alongside some compelling questions), Alcott pauses to celebrate a burst of surprising joy. “Now and then, in this workaday world, things do happen in the delightful storybook fashion, and what a comfort it is,” the author wrote, as the March family celebrated a very special Christmas. Gerwig’s “Little Women” offers its own delightful storybook polish, in its own unique terms, and what a comfort that is.
Sony will release “Little Women” in theaters on Wednesday, December 25.