Film reviews and more since 2009

Little Women (2019) review

Dir. Greta Gerwig

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

When I learned that Greta Gerwig’s sophomore directorial effort was going to be an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s storied novel Little Women, I couldn’t help but be slightly disappointed. Gerwig — an actress whose boundless charisma and effervescent energy I’ve enjoyed since her early days in Joe Swanberg and Noah Baumbach films — showed she had rich stories of her own to tell after Lady Bird, and I was hoping we’d continue to get ones from her that were either explicitly personal or uniquely special. Since the 1910s, we’ve had six film adaptations and six miniseries made from Alcott’s source material. Little Women is a story that’s been told and told again; there was even an underseen film adaptation released last year starring Sarah Davenport and Allie Jennings.

I never doubted the quality and poise Gerwig could bring to the story. I simply wanted an original one. Having said all that, Little Women shows once again how explicitly talented Gerwig as a writer and director. This is a beautiful ensemble, rhythmic despite a rather nonlinear narrative, and highlights her ability to mine exquisite performances from actors of varying ages and experience.

The film follows Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), who grows up in a crowded household in late-19th century Manhattan. When she’s not working alongside her traditionally minded Aunt March (Meryl Streep), she’s writing melodramatic plays for her sisters — Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) — to perform. She longs to be a successful writer, and bravely rejects the societal pressures bestowed upon women to marry young and enjoy a comfortable, domestic life. She’d rather refine her craft as a writer, despite a local publisher (Tracy Letts) insisting her stories are flawed and difficult to publish because they don’t end with the female protagonists marrying.

Outside of the March family, we’re acquainted with characters like Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), their handsome next door neighbor, Laurie’s grandfather (Chris Cooper), who forms a friendship with Beth, and John Brooke (James Norton), Laurie’s tutor who becomes the apple of Meg’s eye.

Published in 1868, Alcott’s novel is a meaty 759 pages, but Gerwig marvelously distills it down to a 135 minute film with pacing rarely an issue. She creates a living, breathing world despite focusing on a tight-knit family, allowing characters to roam freely around New York City. Where past film adaptations of Little Women found themselves hyperfocused on Jo’s fledgling career and resistance to conform, Gerwig allows the character’s sisters room to be themselves, and in turn, creates intriguing moments. One of the most memorable is the conflict between Jo and Amy after Amy shamefully burns one of her sister’s stories, resulting in a fight and a stone-cold silent treatment that is finally broken during a harrowing scene on a frozen lake.

By expanding the focus of the story, Gerwig makes each member of the cast shine. Watson and Pugh (an actress who has had a fantastic year with Midsommar and now this film) can almost articulate as much with their body language and facial expressions as they can with dialog. Streep and Laura Dern, playing the matriarch of the March family, add an esteemed presence to the relatively young cast. Gerwig is a spirited actress on-screen, and with Lady Bird and now Little Women, has shown she can bring out the best in a large cast while giving them ample things to do.

It helps, too, that she has a crew of A-listers aiding her in making Little Women such a beautiful production. Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography is never too gauzy, but colored in such a way to enhance cozy interiors or spacious exteriors. Alexandre Desplat’s score allows moments of jubilation and sorrow to unfold without the need of a telegraphed composition. He doesn’t overplay nor downplay otherwise obvious emotions; his score is textured to compliment them. It makes for a rousing display of aesthetical prowess, and allows Gerwig a large canvas with which to work.

I confess to having a bit of an aversion to period pieces; the same way I struggle to become wrapped up in fantasy movies. I find period pieces rather stuffy most of the time with their flowery dialog and struggle to become invested in the characters the way I ordinarily can with more contemporary dramas. The first hour of Little Women left me a little cold and detached. Admittedly, I’m not the target audience and ultimately can’t shake the aforementioned misgiving I’ve had from the jump. Yet I find it audacious and laudable that Gerwig took such a dense text and reworked it in such an accessible way for a new generation of women, with age-old yet timely themes of feminism and the power of a woman’s choice front and center. Gerwig proves with whatever direction she chooses to take — as a performer or a director — she deserves the benefit of the doubt.

OTHER FILMS DIRECTED BY GRETA GERWIG:
My review of Nights and Weekends
My review of Lady Bird
My review of Barbie (2023)

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

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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