Little Women (2019): Gerwig’s Spirited Adaptation of An American Classic

Little_Women_(2019_film)I once had the opportunity to tour Louisa May Alcott’s house on a family vacation. It’s one of those experiences I’m not sure you appreciate until you have the time and space to look back on it.

However, even then I think there was this innate understanding of how this beloved book was sewn into the very fabric of Alcott’s life and her family home in Concord, Massachusetts. You cannot begin to separate the two.

What’s so intriguing about Greta Gerwig’s adaptation is how it almost conducts an intertextual dialogue with the source material. It frames its story — the creation of a novel and its main character of Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) — in order to map out something of Alcott’s life too. Because, again, they are very much intertwined. 

From what little I know about her, she seemed an equally driven, independent, and brilliantly-minded individual. In her own life, she never got married (unlike her characters) and she also provided for her family.

The movie itself has a brazen free-flowing structure taking material some of us might know intimately (and others not quite so well) and finding renewed meaning. To explore plot feels inconsequential — and not just because it is so familiar — Little Women is, by its very nature, anecdotal. It’s about the passage of time as girls evolve into women without ever being totally beholden to any singular event. 

If I might make a wildly unsubstantiated reference it comes off a bit like Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1961), at least in form, where wild expanses of time are chopped up and compressed into these fluid increments. It feels like a young person’s version of an old person’s book. It courts the timelessness already present but, far from being stodgy, the movie burst with its own vigor, always lithe on its feet.

But this also funnels down to the staging and characterizations as well. Especially for the scenes set during their early years, it’s obvious the writer-director tries to capture the near-spontaneous, giddy energy that’s often the fuel of sisterhood. It can be an overwhelming force of nature full of emotion, affection, and contention in all the most meaningful of ways.

Even as someone with only a modicum amount of knowledge about Little Women (mostly from previous movie versions) Greta Gerwig shows such an immense appreciation for the material, she almost willfully carries us along with her. Even when we’re not quite sure what she’s doing or where she’s taking us, we learn to trust her decisions. If nothing else, she cares about these characters as much if not more than we do.

It’s true her version starts in what is normally considered the end of the narrative, as it slaloms back and forth from past to present with ease. All the moments, as far as I can recall, have antecedents in earlier versions, but as Gerwig stitches them together, it’s as if they are rejuvenated and given rebirth — a new context in which to be understood.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment is how each sister in this newly minted construction is given their own definition and the ability to stand on their own two feet. Because, if you recall, Jo March has always been the undisputed star of these movies; she has provided the central protagonist and P.O.V. from which to understand these stories. If we are to believe Gerwig, Jo essentially wrote them after all.

There’s no denying Saoirse Ronan is our through-line in the narrative here as well amid all its undulations and purposeful digressions, and yet it feels like I get to appreciate the other March girls in ways I never have before. I don’t think it has much to do with star power — because traditionally there have been big names in most of the roles. Again, it is Gerwig who gives each a platform and her players graciously oblige.

Florence Pugh modulates wonderfully between moments of girlish cattiness and whining while simultaneously setting her eyes on mature ambitions, whether it be marriage as an advantageous business proposition or aspiring to be a great artist taken to Paris by Aunt March.

Far from simply capturing the past and the present of Amy, Pugh somehow makes the most complicated, even unlikable sister come out, in the end, gaining our deepest admirations (and sympathies). For those unaware of Pugh’s talent, it stands as yet another breakout performance.  

Emma Watson is able as the decent and contented Meg whose life still spills out of the mold of propriety she’s always been relegated to. There’s a bit more to her. Then Amy (Eliza Scanlen) remains the gifted musician and somehow the purest and most naive of them all. Her purpose is to fill the world with goodness and beauty. Some things never change.

Marmy (Laura Dern) — the family’s moral anchor — might come off an angelic goody two shoes quoting scripture judiciously (ie: “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger”). It could be a little much, that is until you realize her love is genuine, and she’s worked on it for an entire lifetime. Meryl Streep could probably play Aunt March in her sleep, and it’s not just a figure of speech; she does. Her performance is generally prickly and imperious while also belying a suspected soft underbelly. 

Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), as always, is found on the outside looking in at the March’s household. Their brand of enveloping community is so attractive you yearn to be a part of it, drawn into the fold as one of their kindred. After obliging with a token of his good-will, he quips “man is not made to live on books alone.”

In truth, I’ve never appreciated Chalamet more. There always seemed to be a pretentiousness drawn about him. Here there was something a bit different. It might have been the merit of Laurie teasing it out, but he felt slightly more animated and alive in a way that makes him likable. Although he is a man bred in affluent spheres, he nevertheless, hates their stuffiness.

He would rather dance a jig with Jo, and he calls out the March sisters when they falter into the general public’s pettiness because he knows the people they really are in the familiarity of their own home. In fact, he has tussles with nearly every sister, but never out of malice; there’s always such genuine care, even love, in its multifaceted forms. 

What I truly appreciate about Gerwig’s relationship with the text is how she openly courts contrasting ideas. Specifically, there are threads of feminism coursing through the narrative even as they extrapolate off ideas Alcott dealt with years ago.

And yet in the same instance, she does not shy away or completely dismiss romantic love or a more traditional desire for marriage. Case and point is Meg who is genuinely glad to be courted by a decent man she loves before raising a family together, in spite of their poverty. For Meg, this life fills her up with joy

So in some sense, Gerwig’s having her cake and eating it too paying deference to a timeless piece of American Literature while still perceiving it through her own personal creative lens.

You might say this even from a casting perspective with Ronan, Chalamet, and Tracy Letts all being holdovers from Lady Bird (2017). It might be the importance placed on female relationships, or the buoyancy frolicking with a sweeping passion through the storyline.

We get the happy ending if we so choose while also being allowed the space to consider an alternative. It doesn’t feel wishy-washy. Instead, it’s engaged with the enigma of Louis May Alcott herself even as it’s engaged with the process of creating art.

For me, it has the best of both worlds. Little Women has not been compromised and yet we have not been gipped of Gerwig’s own cinematic vivacity. While it’s not a perfect adaptation — not always intuitive to follow — it never scrimps on life-giving vitality.

You can note the humanity in profound new ways mined from a novel that’s been culled through and cherished for generations. I’ve never believed Little Women was a “women’s picture” or just for an American audience.  It is, in fact, universal. 

4/5 Stars

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