little women review

Ever since I was a little girl, I hated Amy March. I hated everything the youngest March sister in Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women represented: from her preening vanity, to her obsession with men, to the way life came so easy to her because of her beauty and youth — and of course, the manuscript-burning incident. Like many a Little Women reader, I connected most with Jo, the tomboyish writer who dreams of becoming an independent woman. Alcott too showed a preference for Jo — the de facto protagonist of the book was the feminist stand-in for the author. Jo was easy to like, or at least, easy to aspire to. Every Little Women fan thought themselves to be as strong-willed and smart as Jo, making it easy to look down on an empty-headed brat like Amy.

Alcott may not have intended it, but there was an internalized misogyny in how readers viewed Amy — arguably one of the most hated characters in literature. Jo fit so snugly into the tomboyish hero mold, while Amy was placed in direct contrast to her. The feature film and TV adaptations of Alcott’s post-Civil War era classic would often take on this uncharitable view of Amy too, with little more to her arc than the infamous manuscript-burning and her fall through the ice. Most characters in the Little Women adaptations were tertiary to Jo anyways, the independent, romantic hero who “wasn’t like other girls.” But Greta Gerwig‘s immensely warm and big-hearted 2019 adaptation of Little Women displays the richest understanding of all the different women in the story and performs the greatest miracle: recontextualizes vain, spoiled, silly Amy into one of the most compelling characters of the film.

Can you make a movie out of a weathered book spine? Compose a lilting score out of a stained page? If you could, it would be Gerwig’s Little Women, the Lady Bird director’s luminous, gorgeously gauzy adaptation of the coming-of-age classic. More than any other adaptation before it, Gerwig captures the vibrant world created by Alcott and creates a film that wraps you up in its warmth and makes you never want to leave.

Period dramas are often written off as stodgy affairs, but everything about Gerwig’s film feels incredibly alive. It can be credited to the exciting way that Gerwig restructures the coming-of-age film, telling a non-chronological story that cuts back and forth between the cozy colors of childhood and the cold grays of adulthood (Gerwig shoots the childhood scenes with a reddish color palette that literally glows). Or it can be rich interiority that Gerwig and her fantastic cast lend the characters, most of whom have never enjoyed such depth of characterization before. Gerwig gives inner lives and loves to all the characters, while lending some jagged edges to Jo (Saoirse Ronan) that makes the long-beloved heroine pop off the screen even more. But Gerwig shows a real affection for the oft-ridiculed Amy (Florence Pugh), who becomes the fascinating and worthy foil to the headstrong Jo.

Little Women is bookended by Jo’s meeting with a publisher (a scene-stealing Tracy Letts) to discuss her novel about her and her sister’s lives. While Jo recounts her life, the film flashes back and forth between their childhood and their adulthood 5 years later. All the familiar beats of the Alcott’s novel are covered — with the jumps through time tying together some of the common thematic threads of the slice-of-life vignettes — but with a newly modern energy. Gerwig had shown a talent for naturalistic, overlapping dialogue with her Oscar-nominated 2017 film Lady Bird, but that talent is in full display with Little Women, which pushes forward with an energetic, lived-in vivacity that previous adaptations had never had. Jo and her sisters — from the eldest and most level-headed Meg (Emma Watson), to the gentle and timid Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and finally the vain aspiring artist Amy (Pugh) — barrel through each scene like forces of nature, interrupting each other and arguing with each other in a torrent of words that are barely understandable, but are almost musical in their chaotic rhythms. The constantly-overlapping chatter of the sisters becomes a comforting hum that takes us through the vibrant coziness of childhood, which makes the pained, stark silences of adulthood all the more unbearable.

From childhood, Jo dreams of being a famous writer and scoffs at her sister Amy’s similar dreams of becoming a famous painter. “It sounds so crass when she says it,” Jo pouts after Amy declares she will be the best painter in the world. Gerwig latches onto these two foils, and Jo and Amy become the strongest throughlines of the film — so alike and not alike in their passions and dreams, and in their heart-fluttering romantic storylines. Gerwig makes the smart choice of introducing Jo’s love interest, the awkward German professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel, doing a charming Mr. Darcy impression), early on, while framing much of the film around Amy and Laurie (Timothée Chalamet)’s combative flirtations. The relationship between Amy and Laurie has long been a source of contention for Little Women fans — the romance between them happens so quickly and so late in the story, while Jo and Laurie are presented as kindred, mischievous spirits from the moment they meet. But Gerwig’s film, in addition to having the richest understanding of who Jo and Amy are as characters, is perhaps the most romantic of the adaptations. Jo is given a classic meet-cute with Bhaer, while Amy is shown to have a long-simmering love for Laurie and a unique ability to challenge and provoke him.

It would be easy to say that Amy is given a more modern makeover in Little Women, but Gerwig was just picking up on the character’s nuances that had always existed. Amy was vain and self-centered, yes, but she also wielded a kind of emotional intelligence that none of the other characters, not even Jo, had. The greatest strength of Alcott’s Little Women is that it embraces all different kinds of women — the vain, the beautiful, the kind, the angry — and treats them with the same love and affection. Gerwig does the same and expands upon it, creating out of Amy’s inherent emotional intelligence a character who’s practical about the realities for a woman in her time. I was concerned at first about Pugh’s casting as Amy (for one, I loved Pugh so much as an actress I wasn’t prepared to hate her, and I thought it odd that one of the older actresses for the sisters was playing the youngest), but she embodies the character with such passion, wit, and humor that she far and away stole the entire movie. Pugh is completely believable as the younger Amy, who in the early scenes is as young as 13, playing up the brattiness and naivety with unaffected grace and stellar comedic timing (one scene in which she bawls childishly to Laurie is absolutely hysterical).

Enough can’t be said about how marvelous Ronan is as Jo, perfectly cast right down to her androgynous cheekbones and wardrobe. Ronan’s Jo is so alive and flawed — simultaneously boisterous as she is introspective. I love the visual contrast Gerwig plays up between Jo and Laurie, with Chalamet giving an almost feminine affect to his performance in contrast to Ronan’s hard, masculine energy. Ronan and Chalamet, reuniting after Lady Bird, share an undeniable chemistry again, but it’s softer and more immature. It’s a testament to their talents, as well as that of the entire cast’s, that the dynamics they share with all of the characters varies so wildly from relationship to relationship — Chalamet and Pugh have a simmering will-they-won’t-they chemistry, Ronan and Garrel a sense of mutual respect. Ronan and Pugh have the most interesting dynamic — a shared love underneath an uncomfortable hostility. It’s such a modern and multifaceted depiction of sisters in a story that can often be overtaken by its sentimentality.

The rest of the cast is tremendous as well: Meryl Streep‘s ridiculous, doddering Aunt March getting a fair few laughs while sharing profound insights about women’s economic situations; Laura Dern‘s amazingly gentle performance as the March matriarch Marmee; Scanlen as the doomed Beth, lending her more of a stubborn streak than previously beatific depictions; Watson, doing her best to rein in her accent. Even Bob Odenkirk‘s rare appearances as Father March are a delight, as brief as they are.

There’s no film this year that I’ve wanted to spend more time with than Little Women. It can at times feel sentimental and mawkish — an inevitability of adapting the classic story — but no other film in 2019 has conveyed as much ineffable joy, or been such a testament to the human spirit.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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