REVIEW: Little Women [2019]

Rating: 9 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG | Runtime: 134 minutes
    Release Date: December 25th, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: Columbia Pictures / Sony Pictures Releasing
    Director(s): Greta Gerwig
    Writer(s): Greta Gerwig / Louisa May Alcott (novel)

Fight to the end and be loud.

Despite letting its sordid content embarrass her to the point of pretending to be a writer friend’s messenger, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) can’t hide the excitement of earning twenty dollars her family desperately needs for a story she composed. With one sister married to a husband of modest means (Emma Watson‘s Meg), another off in Europe with a wealthy suitor yet to propose (Florence Pugh‘s Amy), and a third sick in bed with fever (Eliza Scanlen‘s Beth), her New York City efforts to scrape by have become her Concord, Massachusetts-based family’s last line of defense. The work might not equal her grand ambitions from yesteryear, but it’s enough to survive. And as a single woman at the tail end of the 19th century, that means a whole lot.

Could she have both, though? Could she use her talents to tell stories that don’t rely upon violence to attract an audience? A young professor neighbor (Louis Garrel‘s Friedrich Bhaer) believes it possible even if he’s unable to tell her so before she runs from the first real criticism she’s ever faced about her art. Jo is conversely used to being put down for attitude, independence, and honesty courtesy of Aunt March (Meryl Streep), but this is different. This gets to the heart of what she knows is true: she’s compromised her writing’s integrity in order to make money and has enjoyed the allure of her subsequent success. She’s living her dream even if it might be incomplete and only Beth can remind her the rest remains possible.

That’s when writer/director Greta Gerwig travels back via flashback for the first time during her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott‘s Little Women. Using the mirrored drama and emotions surrounding two of Beth’s illnesses, she shifts constantly between past and present to reveal where things went astray. What ultimately pushed Jo away from Concord and her saint of a mother (Laura Dern‘s Marmee), best friend’s (Timothée Chalamet‘s Laurie) love (if not more), and the companionship of her sisters? Why did she abandon her novels and the writing she so vehemently defended against a world trying to force her into a box as housewife, mother, and wife? And how did her charity, freedom, and love evolve for and despite those in her life? It’s all here in memory.

Gerwig’s structure becomes a perfect way in which to condense the novel so its characters become more important than its plot. She therefore changes when things happen and in some cases how things happen to heighten the drama within her film’s closer quarters. We’re able to recognize through it that so much of Jo’s motivation lies in helping her family even if surfaces would have us believe the opposite. Because she is incapable of “marrying well” simply to secure a future, her exile to New York becomes more about sacrificing for the group in the only way she knows how than following her dreams. Some of that’s here too, but the struggle does more to make her regret past choices than embrace potential opportunity. But she’s not alone.

After all, how did the rest of her family get where they are? Did any of them compromise? Look at Marmee raising four daughters while her husband is off fighting in the Civil War and how she never stops giving everything to the less fortunate despite how little it leaves them. Look at Meg being groomed as a prize wife to the aristocracy before falling in love with someone much lower on the economic scale instead. There’s the conflict between Amy’s own artistic worth and her more materialistic desires leading her down a path she still controls despite what anyone else says. And don’t forget Aunt March herself. Cold, conniving, and judgmental—she might be willing to compromise everyone else, but she never conceded anything herself.

These are all inspiring women refusing to ignore their hearts. The ones who can’t wait to be married don’t walk blindly towards that fate and those who can wait hold strong to their independent identities even if it would be more convenient to not. Appearances are thus forever deceiving. This is truest for someone like Amy (Pugh is perhaps the best part of the whole) and her coping mechanism to standout amongst the rest that could by comparison be construed as vapidity, but it’s also true of the men. Laurie wrestles with his ability to be a playboy against proving himself better in the mold of his altruistic neighbors as nurtured by Marmee and his complicated father Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) combats a gruff exterior to reveal the wealth of empathy beneath.

While so much of this story hinges upon Jo and Laurie’s complex relationship and its easy laughter and heartbreaking intensity (Ronan is outstanding as usual with Chalamet not far behind), Gerwig doesn’t forget how compelling the dynamics surrounding them are. A lot of my favorite moments come from the periphery because of how delicately profound they’re handled. Look at Mrs. Hummel (Sasha Frolova) when the Marches arrive with their Christmas breakfast as gift. Look at Scanlen’s Beth escaping her shy shell to accept Mr. Laurence’s invitation to play his piano and then Cooper’s silently affecting response when she does. Look at practically every scene Dern is in and witness the power of her compassion as a loving leader who sets an example that everyone (including us) should follow.

It’s easy to appreciate the wonderful craft on display (production design, score, and cinematography) alongside a top notch cast, but don’t underestimate Gerwig’s accomplishment combining it all into a hopeful tale sprung from tragedy that won’t let itself be mired in that pain. There’s death, despair, and agony at the back of many moments throughout Little Women, yet each one finds itself cutting through the obvious wounds to remember what can still be done outside of them. Humor too becomes an integral tool with which to augment the characters’ capacity for recovery and memorial possessed in the aftermath of such catastrophe. No one and nothing is taken for granted. Some may briefly slip into selfishness, but love always finds a way to steer them back on course.

[1] Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Emma Watson in Columbia Pictures’ LITTLE WOMEN. PHOTO BY: Wilson Webb © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in Greta Gerwig’ LITTLE WOMEN. PHOTO BY: Wilson Webb © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Meryl Streep in Greta Gerwig’ LITTLE WOMEN. PHOTO BY: Wilson Webb © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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