Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott book is sensitive, challenging, and earnestly engages with the source material.
“Little Women is a girl’s book,” I remember thinking as a young boy in school in rural Illinois; sure, I was a nerd and a bookworm, but I read boy’s books, tales of spaceships and horror and action. Granted, there was a lot of pressure to conform, to not go too outside the box with the expectations of my gender, and I can’t help but wonder what circumstances might have led me to Louisa May Alcott’s book earlier in life than it did were those pressures not present. It’s a common phenomenon, apparently; maybe if more boys had read Alcott’s masterwork earlier in life, more emotional doors might have opened to us. Might I have related to lovesick Laurie? Fastidious but well-intentioned John Brooke? Or, dare I say it, one of the March sisters themselves?
Watching Greta Gerwig‘s 2019 adaptation of Little Women, with only my passing knowledge of the book and the ensuing adaptations (up until a couple of years ago, my only exposure was through high-school English classes I half-slept through and an early viewing of the 1994 adaptation), felt like living out Plato’s allegory of the cave: finally, a part of the world I hadn’t experienced before opened up to me in new, exciting ways. Knowing Gerwig’s other output, I had a feeling Little Women would be good: little did I know how revelatory it would feel.
While Little Women is commonly recognized as a semi-autobiographical account of Alcott’s own life growing up with her three sisters, Gerwig leans into that metatext with her turn at the story. The film is bookended (for lack of a better term) by two glimpses of the book’s cover, one crediting Alcott and the other crediting Alcott stand-in, tomboyish author Jo March (Saiorse Ronan). The two hours that sit between those shots exist in conversation between the two women, not to mention Gerwig herself; Little Women is patently a film about the heartbreaking, complicated experience of growing up, especially as women in a man’s world. For Alcott and March as writers, and Gerwig as a filmmaker, those perspectives are front and center in their works.
By and large, Gerwig faithfully captures the rich textures and complicated emotions of Alcott’s book, charting the growth and maturation of the Marches. There’s Jo’s ambition to live life beyond the expectations of marriage and housework, Meg’s (Emma Watson) frustration at being so close and yet so far to the fripperies of luxury, and Amy’s (Florence Pugh) tempestuousness and endearing moments of vanity. There’s a fourth March sister, of course, the quiet, accommodating Beth (Eliza Scanlan), of whom the other three feel extremely protective, especially after she becomes chronically ill with scarlet fever. Like in the book, Beth is too good for this world, and her fragility tests the sisters in untold ways.
Cleverly fussing with the book’s structure, Gerwig slyly shifts us in the narrative between the sun-dappled optimism of late childhood to the cold disillusionment of adulthood. Fissures between characters — the triangle between Jo, Amy, and 19th-century fuckboi Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), for instance — play themselves delightfully out of order, placing stark contrast between the fantasy of the past and the bittersweetness of the present. DP Yorick Le Saux lovingly differentiates between these modes, the ambers of the Marches’ youth colliding with the cool blues of their more disillusioned years.
Like Lady Bird, Little Women contains plenty of Gerwig’s detailed, effervescent naturalism, the Marches (Jo especially) fizzing with a light vibrance that belies the exuberance of youth. Ronan continues to prove a beautiful creative partner for Gerwig; her Jo’s an iconoclast and a spitfire, but that just makes her moments of vulnerability that much more deeply felt. Watson turns in fine, elegant work as Meg, and Scanlan commands the screen with quiet stoicism. But Pugh’s Amy March is a particular standout, her pouty brattiness belying her genuine insight into others, especially Laurie. And, of course, there are the adults in the room, like Chris Cooper‘s mild and welcoming Mr. Laurence, or Laura Dern‘s saintly Marnee March, both of whom offer positive role models in the girls’ lives. (Meryl Streep‘s Aunt March is the closest thing the film has to a villain, and even then, she’s filled with acerbic tidbits of advice for Amy to survive .)
Little Women is patently a film about the heartbreaking, complicated experience of growing up.
Even at their darkest moments, there’s joy in their company, Gerwig relishing giddy gatherings like an impromptu silly dance outside the Laurences’ house between Jo and Laurie, or Laurie’s inauguration into the Pickwick Club. Even though their lives are marred by war, illness and struggle (Papa March is off fighting in the Civil War, a detail given marginal consideration in the lives of the girls), it’s hard not to want to get up and dance right along with them. It feels downright liberating to swim in the lushness of the period and Alcott’s stylized prose, filtered through Gerwig’s decidedly modern eye.
But it all comes back to Jo, especially as the travails of her family are filtered through a book she writes throughout the course of the film for the approval of stern, challenging publisher Mr. Dashwood (a mutton-chopped, hilarious Tracy Letts), who cautions her that her protagonist must end up either married or dead. Like Alcott herself, Gerwig is most interested in Jo and her many ways of rebelling against the expectations placed on her and other women. This comes out most intriguingly in her on-again, off-again relationship with Laurie, whom Chalamet gives many other facets than in the book; we get to see the shades of his yearning for Jo, and the ineffable frustration that comes when he doesn’t get what he wants — a life with her. And yet, as Jo pursues her first, best love (writing), culminating in the pages of her life being meticulously bound into a book, just try not to punch the air in victory.
The film isn’t without its flaws — its structure, while appealing, turns many supporting characters into mere shades of Jo’s life, and can confuse upon first blush; plus, I can imagine the thinkpieces that will ensue about the film (and the book)’s treatment of class. But there’s just something so infectious about Little Women‘s giddy sense of the encompassing nature of childhood. So much feels universal to the March sisters’ long, stumbling journey through the world; as a boy whose world discouraged him from digging into emotions like love, loss and heartbreak, I kinda wish I’d felt free to consume this story long before Gerwig brought it to the screen.
Little Women pens the story of its life and puts it in theaters this Christmas.