Greta Gerwig’s retelling is a beautifully contemplative story of femininity that will touch your soul and make it sing with a cast you’ll adore.
Louisa May Alcott’s beloved Little Women has been adapted several times, including just last year in a modernized take that went under the radar. Every fan has a version that speaks to them and that will impact how they’ll consume director Greta Gerwig’s new take on the material.
Gerwig’s Little Women makes drastic changes to the structure to its benefit as it attempts to separate itself from the previous tellings while simultaneously paying homage to them. With its cast of performers, all capably standing on their own and sharing screentime, Little Women is the cinematic equivalent of a warm hug or a mug of hot chocolate. It’s a beautiful tale of family and love you’ll wrap yourself up in.
Because of the story’s familiarity, Gerwig takes the audacious approach of making the book’s second-half it’s primary plot line. A grown-up Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) has traveled to New York to pursue writing, catching the eye of quiet professor, Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) while her younger, vainer sister Amy (Florence Pugh) is studying art in Paris. The two women, so often at odds in earlier incarnations of the story, become two halves of a whole, with their own individual differences being the strengths by which Gerwig conveys her messages.
Titans of acting like Katharine Hepburn have played Jo March and Ronan doesn’t seek to imitate but inhabits Gerwig’s interpretation of the character to convey the loneliness that comes from determination. Ronan’s feistiness could be misconstrued as a continuation of her Lady Bird character, but director and actor go deeper. It isn’t just that Jo doesn’t want her sisters to marry and fall into the trap of tradition that’s the only avenue for a woman to have security (often at the expense of their autonomy). Jo also just doesn’t want to be alone in general. As she comes to discover through pursuing writing and returning home to care for her ailing sister, Beth (Eliza Scanlen), she is lonely and finds love to be a way to staunch that loneliness; if she can’t have the love of her sisters, she can find the love of a man. Where previous films, particularly in the golden age of Hollywood, have situated marriage as merely a woman’s reward for being good, Gerwig looks at the complexities within them. How a person can crave love and fear that they’ll never get it because they want to achieve their own dreams. Where is the compromise? Gerwig hopes to answer that.
But, interestingly, this story is just as much Amy March’s as her fiery older sister’s. In the past films, Amy is a flighty girl more interested in wealth and her nose than anything passing for complexity. Gerwig gives us justice for Amy March that, aided by Florence Pugh’s excellent comedic timing, is more than the sum of her parts. Amy is still interested in her looks and can be selfish, but as she grows up it transitions into a hardness. Amy is reminded chronically by her cantankerous Aunt March (Meryl Streep playing Meryl Streep) that she is the only savior for her family, being the lone marriageable prospect. This forces Amy into her own conundrum with marriage, understanding that it will help her family but also worrying about how she, and her eventual children, would be the property of her husband. More importantly, developing Amy ends up benefiting the romantic triangle that develops between Jo, Amy and neighbor boy Laurie (Timothee Chalamet).
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Chalamet and Garrel as the romantic prospects for Jo and Amy are painted with a fluttery touch, both highly romanticized and realistic. Bhaer, long-seen as Jo’s consolation prize, is a man able to provide criticism and, through Garrel’s quiet performance, is shy and introverted. Chalamet’s Laurie is gregarious, but he’s also simple and requires someone to beat him into movement. The other cast members are also peacefully written, if lacking in the fire of Pugh and Ronan’s roles. Emma Watson’s Meg also get an uptick in plot with her family’s struggles with poverty. Meg is often the rational one and Watson gets at the heart of one’s desire for money to absolve them of their struggles, but the fear of being labeled materialistic. Laura Dern’s Marmee is easily the most restrained performance from the actress this year and it’s a breath of fresh air.
There’s no follow-up slump for Gerwig. The passion and grace she brought to Lady Bird is expertly transplanted to Alcott’s story. Little Women is truly a wondrous remake for a new generation.
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