Little Women is a paradox. It’s a movie that is so warm, so innocent and so full of life that you leave excited for whatever comes next in your own. Yet it’s also a movie that makes our everyday lives look boring by comparison. The world outside the theater can’t compare to Greta Gerwig’s beautiful adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s wonderful novel.
The eighth version of the American classic is a return to the book’s roots. The time is the 19th century and the place is Massachusetts. A Civil War looms just beyond the woods. It’s a war that leaves the March girls without their dad (Bob Odenkirk) and without money. But the girls are rich in spirit, with a courteous glow that extends to everything around them.
Autumn leaves and golden hour light shower the countryside. Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) is running through a field with a sunny smile. She has just been published by a local paper, which is a dream come true for a writer trying to find her voice. Jo isn’t the only little woman with big aspirations, though. Her sisters also strive for independence in this world of men, and Marmee encourages them to do just that. She’s played by Laura Dern in a performance that is as cozy as the crackling fire in the family living room.
The other March sisters are Meg, Beth and Amy. Meg (Emma Watson) is the oldest of the bunch, Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is the youngest, though you wouldn’t know it from her killer piano skills and Amy (Florence Pugh) is just as talented as a painter, and she gets more time on screen than she’s had in prior movies.
But it’s Jo who steals the show. Ms. Ronan is almost too perfect to be believable. Her Jo is as ambitious as a heroine can be, with Katherine Hepburn’s vitality and Lady Bird’s individuality. “No one will forget Jo March!” she declares. No kidding. Jo has been an inspiration to women everywhere since 1868.
Alcott wrote the character as someone for little girls to look up to. “I’m so sick of people telling me love is all a woman is fit for,” she tells Marmee in a fiery rage. So she works as hard as she can. Even though she grinds it out as a writer, scribbling away in the attic, her life is fun; her world a playground.
That’s because this takes place at a time in life when the biggest problem a girl could have is picking a dress for the dance. It’s a time when playing make believe, wrestling on the floor and going to the beach is all a kid could ask for. And Gerwig captures that excitement of growing up with New Wave verve. If you listen closely, you can hear the similarities between the theme of Jules and Jim and Alexander Desplat’s lush score. Which is to say nothing of the similarities between Francios Truffaut and Yorick Le Saux’s camerawork. Slow motion shots convey the importance of falling in love, while quick cuts add to the youthful pace.
Still, Gerwig has made something fresh. What separates her film from past adaptations is the way she mixes up the time frames. By jumping back and forth in the March’s lives – from kids to adults – the childhood moments feel all the more alive when compared to the confined hardships the girls face when grown up.
This isn’t the first time the director has basked in the joys of being young, though. Lady Bird, her feature debut, was a partly autobiographical story of Gerwig’s college days in Sacramento, and a completely honest look at what it means to grow up in contemporary America.
Despite the 150 year gap between the two stories, Little Women is just as urgent. It’s a feminist picture in the best sense. It’s not about Captain Marvel or Laura Croft kicking ass and saving men, it’s about women finding the power within themselves to be themselves. Will the March’s marry rich because society tells them to? Or will they marry who they love, no matter the cost?
At the heart of that drama is the boy next door. Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) is a heartthrob who catches the eyes of Jo and Amy. I won’t spoil who he picks – if you read the book, you already know – but what I will say is that he’s just as lovely as the women he admires, and that when he joins in on the dancing and cuddling at the family cabin, it’s a moment that truly feels lived in.
Production designer Jess Gonchor’s goal was to “make everyone in the theater want to live in the March’s house.” She’s done more than that, though. She’s made everyone in the theater want to live in the March’s world.
We don't deserve Greta Gerwig. Her movies are so warm, so innocent and so full of life that you leave excited for whatever comes next in your own. And the same goes for Little Women.