Who would have thought that a movie based on a novel that came out over 150 years ago could feel so relevant? When you have Greta Gerwig behind the camera, anything is possible!
Coming in to this film, I recognized a bias that I feared might prevent me from enjoying it. I really struggle watching period films. I don’t know what it is. It might be the dialogue. It is so specifically of its time which can make it difficult for me to follow. Or it might be the situations. It can be frustrating to watch an issue be exacerbated when it could quickly be solved by a text in 2019. Whatever it is, I knew that Little Women had that going against it. A second bias I held, however, is my utter adoration of Lady Bird. It was and is one of my favorite films of the decade. Naturally, Gerwig’s follow up would have a lot to live up to. Though it might not reach the heights of Lady Bird, I assure you that it is well worth your time.
“…it might not reach the heights of Lady Bird [but] I assure you that it is well worth your time.“
At its very core, Little Women is a story about sisterhood. The film centers on the March siblings. Jo, played by Lady Bird herself, Saoirse Ronan, dreams of being a famous writer. The combination of living in the 1860s and being a woman, however, makes this dream increasingly difficult to achieve. Emma Watson plays Meg, who represents the equal and opposite of Jo. While Jo longs to make a name for herself and herself alone, Meg holds a more traditional dream. She wants to get married and have kids and live happily ever after. A dream which frustrates and confounds Jo. Amy, played by Florence Pugh, is the youngest of the group. She is immature but lively and always looking to have some fun. Finally, we have Beth, played by Eliza Scanlen, who is… also in the movie.
The film follows the four women as they navigate following their dreams and falling in love amidst tragedy. Narratively, Gerwig takes a big swing in presenting the film. Unlike prior versions, the film is told in a nonlinear fashion. The story cuts back and forth between 1868 (“present” day) and 1861. This is a choice that could have made things incredibly messy. Constructing a period film in such a unique manner does not happen very often but Little Women pulls off the feat spectacularly. Jumping back and forth between years in the story not only keeps things fresh but helps to sell the emotions felt in each scene. We don’t have to see every second of every year between 1861 and 1868. We get just enough to understand who the characters are and why they are acting the way that they are.
“Constructing a period film in such a unique manner does not happen very often but Little Women pulls off the feat spectacularly.“
One of my very favorite things about Lady Bird is the care and attention it gives to each character. There is not a single wasted character in that film. Gerwig utilizes the same technique here with one glaring exception. With a supporting cast that includes Timothee Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, Tracey Letts, and Bob Odenkirk, it would be irresponsible to waste any of them. But we never have to worry about such a thing.
Each supporting character is given their time to really be seen. Not just as actors in a movie but as true, alive characters. It is the quiet moments – Cooper listening to Beth play the piano in the other room, Dern laying a loving hand on Jo during a pivotal scene – that really make the characters feel lived in. It is unfortunate then, that as Beth, Scanlen falls by the wayside. She has a touching relationship with the neighbor, Mr. Laurence, but even that could be fleshed out more. Maybe it’s how the character is originally written in the novel but it seems that Beth is only really there to drive the plot forward. It wouldn’t bother me so much in a lesser movie. But in a movie with such complete characters and performances, it really stands out.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we have Jo and Amy, the second oldest and the youngest sister, respectively. Jo and Amy represent a newer way of life. Both want to be famous. Jo wants to write novels and Amy wants to be a painter.
“Each supporting character is given their time to really be seen. Not just as actors in a movie but as true, alive characters.“
Jo struggles with her desires, as she wants to be independent and focus on her career. She recognizes a sad truth for women, which is that they are sometimes only seen for what they do for men. They’re not respected for their minds, their creativity, or for the people they are. Yet, that does not stop her from wanting to fall in love. This inner struggle that she’s experiencing is compelling and timely. Hollywood often presents a binary – women get married and have kids or they become successful and die alone. This takes away from the dreams that many women have of achieving both. In Little Women, it is clear that this belief has held strong across generations. Saoirse Ronan performs a monologue in which she so succinctly and so precisely expresses her disillusion with the false binary in what is perhaps the greatest scene of the film.
Amy, on the other hand, expresses a desire to become a successful painter. She does not experience the same inner struggle that Jo does though. Amy is a free spirit and completely herself, which makes for a dynamic character. Amy is often getting in her own way. Whether she lashes out at her sister for not inviting her to a party or she is throwing out insults after feeling ignored, Amy has a lot of growing up to do. Despite playing a character that can come across as selfish, Florence Pugh brings an endearing quality to Amy. We recognize her immaturity but it does not make her a bad person. Like every human being, she is complex and sometimes expresses her emotions in an unhealthy way. We love Amy and it is largely because Pugh never lets us forget that she is a good person.
“Despite playing a character that can come across as selfish, Florence Pugh brings an endearing quality to Amy.”
It’s not just the acting that makes Little Women what it is. Remember how I said that I have never been a fan of period films? This movie being an exception is largely due to its editing. As I mentioned earlier, the film is told in a nonlinear way which gives us something to think about. Even for those who know the story, having it presented in a new way invites the audience to put the puzzle pieces together. Despite hearing complaints of it being confusing at times, I personally found it completely engrossing and experienced no difficulty in understanding it. The storytelling made the emotions hit that much harder because you could see the evolution in beliefs that each character experienced in seven years, whether due to maturing or due to life circumstances. It truly is a clever way of updating a well known story for a new audience.
On the technical side of things, the costuming and the set design are gorgeous. Both somehow straddling a line between classical and modern. This gives the film a familiar feeling, despite being of a time that none of us have ever known. This surely comes from the confidence that Gerwig has on display in her direction of the film. Through two films, her casts are so fully formed and cohesive – more so than any other movie in recent years – and it can’t be a coincidence. The leadership she brings to set every day makes a difference. Together, they create an aura surrounding the film that truly gives the feeling of a hug. It is a warm, loving feeling full of tenderness and care. I never want to be let out of its embrace.