Jan 2, 2020

Little Women (2019)
Columbia Pictures

Written and Directed by: Greta Gerwig
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep

An early scene in Little Women establishes the tone of this modern adaptation quite clearly. Two of the four March Sisters, Jo (Saorise Ronan) and Meg (Emma Watson), reunite after spending seven years apart to care for their youngest sister, Beth (Eliza Scanlen), who has fallen ill. One of them notices that their third sister, Amy (Florence Pugh) still hasn’t arrived home from Paris. Until this point we have seen Amy as being a vivacious, witty, artistically gifted young woman. So it’s a surprise when Jo, who has similar creative inclinations, says with coldness that “Amy has a talent for avoiding life’s hardships.” We then see what caused Jo to feel that coldness, and we understand her perfectly.

There are few filmmakers alive today who can authentically depict the complicated relationship one has with their family like Greta Gerwig. In her debut feature Lady Bird, she captured how quickly the pendulum in a parent-child relationship can swing, how a tense argument in a department store between a mother and daughter can be instantly smoothed over by finding just the right dress. She strikes that same beautifully tender, empathetic balance when it comes to sibling relationships in her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel.

Little Women was not a novel begging for yet another adaptation. Indeed, prior to Gerwig’s take, there had been no less than six adaptations of the book, the most recent having come out in 2018. But Gerwig does something truly astounding with Little Women, something that only a filmmaker of her caliber could do: she takes an old classic and finds ways to truly say something new with it.

The most obvious change is in the film’s framing. Rather than tell her story chronologically, Gerwig’s adaptation flips back and forth between seven years, showing the brightly colored past fade into the more muted, melancholic present. In doing so, she shows how relationships are birthed, harmed, fractured, and, possibly, restored. It’s a technique to demonstrate how at once human beings change greatly yet never truly change at all.

And regardless of how they change, the characters at the center of Little Women are endless sources of delight. Each choice for each character, no matter how seemingly small, forms a patchwork for the film’s overall narrative. Ronan’s Jo is a tomboyish, outspoken woman who nevertheless hides a deep sadness in her soul. Pugh’s Amy is witty and artistic, but around the subject of Jo becomes bitterly jealous and insecure. And the pretty, talented Meg (Emma Watson) nevertheless beguiles Jo with her sincere desire to marry a man and start a family. Jo is one who can never understand how a woman like her could settle for anyone. Meg is one who cannot make any sense of her sister’s life of isolation.

The most brilliant aspect of Gerwig’s adaptation is similar to the most brilliant aspect of Lady Bird: the empathy she shows for her characters. No matter how seemingly one-dimensional or unsympathetic a character may seem, they are always given shining moments of humanity. Even nominally antagonistic figures like Aunt March (Meryl Streep) and Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) are given moments of heart wrenching humanity. We may dislike the actions they perform, or the hardships they cause the Marches, but Gerwig never allows us to fully dislike them. By the same token, she also shows how even the most likable characters harbor a darkness in them. Jo is headstrong and brilliant, yes, but also self-isolating. In letting her characters be neither saints nor devils, Gerwig makes them feel achingly human.

It’s quite a blessing that Gerwig was able to create a film like Little Women. Because yes: it’s necessary for us to have heroes like Furiosa or Wonder Woman to show women the beauty of strength. But it’s also necessary to have heroes like Jo and Amy March who can remind women of the beauty of emotions.