Review: Touching 'Little Women' an ambitious and wonderful update of classic novel

December 26, 2019

Courtesy of Sony 

Adapted from the iconic novel by Louisa May Alcott, director Greta Gerwig’s retelling of “Little Women” is brimming with outstanding performances and impeccable craftsmanship. The film marks only the second feature for actress, turned director Gerwig (following the outright critical and commercial success of “Lady Bird”) and she doesn’t detour into preachy or heavy-handed metaphors like other iterations of the novel. This is an affectionate look at the March sisters, and utilizes ambitious storytelling techniques to help convey the narrative. You’d never know this incarnation of “Little Women” takes place in the mid 19th century, because Gerwig strategically modernizes the plot in unexpected ways. 

 

“Little Women” also works for those who hold a dear affection for the novel close to their chest. From the beginning, you can tell this is a wholesome movie made with passion and respect for these characters. In a way, it re-purposes arcs and motivations in ways not seen in previous installments and is keenly aware of the criticism the book received for how certain actions were resolved. Rest assured, it’s still the same “Little Women” from before, but Gerwig gives it a new life with an original spruce.

 

The film picks up after the March girls’ childhood with Gerwig telling the story through second eldest March sister Jo (Saoirse Ronan continuing to prove that her and Gerwig are a cinematic dream team) perspective. First introduced as a writer struggling for work in New York City, before slipping back in time for flashbacks and cutting between scenes with each sister, Gerwig’s concept is a fascinating one, allowing editor Nick Houy to use brilliant transitions to help chronicle the shifting timelines. The idea that the March sisters are seemingly connected is a point Gerwig makes sure the audience understands. 

 

Her storytelling weaves between the past (seven years earlier) and the present with the changing of color palettes and physical appearances to help clear away confusion. It’s all framed around Jo trying to jump-start her own attempts at a writing career. Her sisters Amy (Florence Pugh who is the real scene stealer in this one), Meg (Emma Watson), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) support their sister but they’re trying to forge their own destiny. 

 

Ronan makes for an engaging Jo, which speaks to the volumes of both the actress and director’s approach and commitment to the material. We’ve seen a few people embody this character before, but none have felt as fresh and in tune with the characters' soul then what Oscar nominee Ronan does here. Likewise for Jo’s baby sister, Amy, played with enormous dimension by Pugh whose silly interpretation of the character is spot on. It’s the type of characterization that fuels the eventual love triangle between herself, Jo, and Laurie (Timothee Chalamet another textbook “Lady Bird” staple) who enters the scene as the shy boy next door and falls in love with both of them, albeit, in different ways. In a film rightfully owned by the strong female ensemble, Gerwig’s take on Amy’s inner life gives Chalamet plenty to work with. 

 

Still, there’s plenty of moments from the book that stay untouched - Meg’s curling accident, Amy’s harsh revenge on Jo, and the gifting of a gorgeous piano - all produced with grace and it should give new audiences something to admire. “Little Women” isn’t always on the nose: there were a few notable instances where Watson slipped out of her American accent, and Bob Odenkirk’s first introduction as the patriarch of the family seemed out of place (though his presence is a welcome addition in the films cozy climax). Meryl Streep has about ten minutes of screen time playing the crotchety Aunt March, and they - to my surprise - fall flat, and you wish Laura Dern’s nurturing mother didn’t seem too good to be true (for the record both Dern and Streep are fun to see but with how much Ronan and Pugh chewi up on the screen, it leaves minimal for everyone else). 

 

Despite all of that, “Little Women” is still a total joy to watch, and Gerwig’s woke screenplay understands the struggles women faced then and still deal with today. A little goes a long way, and Gerwig doesn’t jam a feminist agenda down our throats (occasionally leaning into that when the subject of marriage is brought up) and the lovely ensemble work (which includes everyone mentioned above plus the terrific Tracey Letts as a snobby publisher and a heartbreaking Chris Cooper playing wealthy bureaucrat Mr. Lawrence) is some of the best you can see this holiday season. When the dust settles, you’ll probably never look at Louisa May Alcott’s novel the same way again, and it might be for the best. 

 

Grade: B+

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