Review: “Little Women” (2019)

4.5 out of 5 stars.

“Little Women” has been the favorite book of many for generations, and the majority of its many film adaptations have been solid as well.  But never has the story felt so alive as it does in Greta Gerwig’s new film version, which she wrote and directed.  Based on the 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott, “Little Women” follows the four March sisters—Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), Beth (Eliza Scanlan), and Jo (Saoirse Ronan)—as they grow into adulthood and grapple with society’s expectations of them versus their own desires.

Alcott wrote her protagonists in such a way that made their stories timeless.  There’s something in each character that girls of every generation can relate to, from Amy’s determination to be great to Jo’s reluctance for things to change as she and her sisters get older, and her need to be taken seriously as a writer and as a woman.  That comes across crystal clear in Gerwig’s adaptation, thanks to a screenplay that emphasizes—but doesn’t hit you over the head with—the feminist aspects, and thanks to the incredible cast.  Ronan is exceptional as Jo, the main protagonist, imbuing her with all the tomboyish traits we’ve come to associate with her character, but also bringing weight to her personal struggles.  Meg and Beth, two characters typically sidelined, have a presence that is more important than ever.  Laura Dern’s Marmee and Chris Cooper’s Mr. Laurence—the March’s wealthy and initially believed to be mean next door neighbor—both possess a warm quality that makes an impact in every scene they’re in.  Meryl Streep also makes a brief and largely comical appearance as the Marchs’ rich and cranky aunt. 

Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and Laurie (Timothée Chalamet)

But perhaps the biggest standouts are Pugh’s Amy and Timothée Chalamet’s Teddie, or Laurie, Laurence, the grandson of their neighbor.  Laurie, while he eventually falls for Amy, initially has his sights set on Jo, and their unrequited romance has been a source of dismay for fans for decades.  Amy, meanwhile, has often been a character largely disliked for being a bratty and selfish child and a prissy adult.  Gerwig devotes more time to these two, particularly to Amy, giving the audience an understanding of her character that goes beyond her cunning exterior.  While after graduating, Laurie has the freedom to drink and carouse and lie about, Amy is trapped by the limits society puts on women.  She can’t make her own money, and if she does, it will just become her husband’s property whenever she does marry, so she might as well marry rich.  Pugh plays the bratty traits we associate with child Amy to perfection, but to adult Amy, she brings an admirable combination of composure and determination.  Chalamet’s Laurie, meanwhile, has great chemistry with all of the girls; as an outsider often observing the family in close quarters, there’s constantly a sense of mirth playing behind his eyes.  Unlike most stories, the male characters in this film exist primarily to further the stories of the women, but Chalamet brings a bit more depth to Laurie than that, and the relationship that develops between him and Amy is not only believable, it’s one of the most attractive parts of the movie.

Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) and Amy (Florence Pugh)

Gerwig also presents the story in a non-linear fashion, beginning the story toward the end (after Jo has moved to New York to work as a writer, Amy has traveled to Europe to paint, Meg is married with children, and Beth is ill) and flashing back to the beginning, until the two threads eventually meet in the middle.  It sounds confusing (and maybe it is a little bit, for those who are unfamiliar with the original story), but it actually twist the viewers’ expectation and gives certain scenes even more emotional punch than they had before.  The look of these sequences are different too.  The scenes set in the past, where things were simpler and more hopeful and childhood innocence abounded, are bright and colorful.  The scenes set in the present, where the girls are more mature and faced with more difficult issues, appear melancholy, with sequences that have muted colors and are devoid of light.  Alexandre Desplat’s score also beautifully accents the action.

This “Little Women” also has a very meta conclusion, one that seems to justify the tropey romantic climax.  This probably isn’t necessary—“Little Women” feels modern enough up to that point without it—but it’s also a fun little wink at all those aforementioned readers who lament over Laurie and Jo.  It’s a story that isn’t meant for men (that’s not to say they won’t enjoy it) but it also isn’t meant for all women, as its portrait of feminism primarily concerns itself with the white middle class.  But ultimately, the conclusion is immensely satisfying, giving closure to all the characters, especially Jo, without feeling contrived.  This could have easily been a tired retread of the same material, but Gerwig and the cast breathe new life into it for a new—and more woke—generation.

Runtime: 135 minutes. Rated PG.

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