Dynamic characters and fun filmmaking
Little Women (2019): Four sisters come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War.
There’s something marvelous about Greta Gerwig and her filmmaking. The wonderful actor-turned-director’s, easy-going, innocent style is perfect for the latest adaptation of Little Women, the pioneering, iconic, revelatory coming-of-age story originally penned by Louisa May Alcott. And that’s exactly what this film is: lovely, free-spirited, beautiful, and, of course…. Fun. Sure, it has some confusing editing, (we’ll get to that) but this story could not have been put in better hands. Greta’s directorial debut and titanically successful Lady Bird may have enabled her the opportunity to helm this film, but the idea was in her head long before her 2017 breakout hit. (As evidenced by the fact that she wrote the first draft of this script before directing Lady Bird.) Gerwig’s entire career has led to this moment, and the result is nothing short of a cinematic triumph.
Little Women is the second film from director Greta Gerwig, and the fifth(ish, but who’s really counting) adaptation of the classic Alcott novel. The story follows the March sisters – Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth – as they come of age in Civil War era America. Their struggles to be independent in a sexist economical and societal system designed to repress them are conveyed with a wonderful combination of chaos and meticulousness by Gerwig. The film features a non-linear style with two separate storylines, one set during the Civil War, 7 years earlier than the later. This side-by-side allows you to see two separate portraits of each of the March sisters: one of where they are discovering themselves and who they want to become, the other after they’ve (mostly) molded into what their lives will be. While some have complained that the editing between these storylines was muddy and hard-to-follow, I felt Greta did a marvelous job balancing them thanks to her subtle and clever use of lighting. The earlier storyline was shot entirely with warm lighting, while the “present day” storyline was shot entirely with cold lighting. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a handy crash course.) Apart from providing practical help, this also played up the themes of each storyline, as the earlier felt more vibrant, child-like, and innocent, while the “present day” storyline felt more industrial, flawed, and joust overall grown-up and realistic. It’s not every day that the lighting in a film gets to take center stage to help tell its story, but here it is an invaluable character.
That said, the strength of Little Women is in the characters themselves. Each of the March sisters have their own unique set of qualities that Gerwig explores with a carefree, spontaneous sense of self-discovery. At the helm is the chaotic, disorganized, yet fiercely independent Jo March. Portrayed by Saoirse Ronan, there is a palpable fire to her character, both thanks to the strong writing of her in the source material and thanks to Ronan herself. This was the role Ronan was born to play: her fusion with Jo is downright uncanny at times. (Greta has talked at length about this seamless transformation on the press tour.) There’s Meg, played by Emma Watson, who is the closest thing to a traditional feminine character this story has to offer, but even she is unconventional. She is kind and patient, the elder of the group, and becomes a metaphor for the manifestation of true love while still offering wisdom and guidance for the rest of the sisters. Emma Watson’s calming facial expressions brought a real soothing sense of peace and joy to this character. There’s Beth, quiet and reserved, played in a down-to-earth way by Eliza Scanlen and a welcome contradiction to the rest of the sisters. And finally, there’s Amy. Her struggle for social acceptance, combined with her unquenchable ambition, was the most relatable for me. This, as well as her impromptu yet calculated personality made her my favorite of the sisters. Additionally, while the other three stars felt at home in their characters, Florence Pugh’s performance was the most impressive of the group. It really felt like Pugh had to settle into the skin of Amy and mold herself to the character she was playing, versus coming naturally equipped to play the role. Between this, Midsommar, and Fighting with My Family, Pugh has certainly arrived in the business. (Also, she started filming this 4 days after wrapping Midsommar, so that is quite the impressive transition.)
The supporting characters are also incredibly strong, but the highlight is definitely Laurie. Timothée Chalamet strips away his “bad boy” persona for this grounded yet romantic and innocently kind take on the boy next door. I have a natural predisposition to like everything Timothée Chalamet does, but I really enjoyed his portrayal of Laurie. He is a romantic, searching for his one true love, but also willing to step aside and do what’s best for others around him. He’s never selfish and always fun, and that’s right in Timothée’s wheelhouse. Laurie is the embodiment of how men should act around the women they love. That said, the bad boy vibe does come through a few times and feels somewhat awkward when it does, and, even though you can see the torment of his past actions shining through in these moments, they still feel very out-of-place compared to the character we see the rest of the film. But, of course, it’s Timothée Chalamet, and I am gleefully obligated to love anything and everything that he is involved in.
I’ve spent so much of this review talking / praising the individual characters, because that is the selling point of what Little Women is. It is incredibly rare for a 134 minute film to have this many developed characters, but the strength of the source material, combined with Gerwig’s penmanship, make each character I just mentioned feel unique and thorough. Gerwig’s amazing use of stacked dialogue really hammers this point home. Each scene in the tumultuous March home gives the viewer a fascinating insight into each sister and their mother. These scenes are chaotic yet driven at the helm of a master conductor behind the camera. I could go on and on about this film. I could talk about the amazing costume design, (I will cry foul play if it isn’t at least nominated for this) the incredible colors in the luscious set design, everything. From a technical standpoint, this film is perfect. And thanks to the lighting cues, I never once felt lost at the hands of the admittedly frenetic editing. But, even this worked for me! Gerwig makes great use of recycled shots in these scenes to up the emotional ante, and I found myself rocking the ugly cry in these moments on both viewings of the film.
I’m worried this film is going to be largely overlooked this award season because of sexism, (to the people who are excited to see Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker while also complaining about a new adaptation of Little Women being released at the same time, just stop) and because, depressingly, many of the societal constructs mentioned in Alcott’s novel are still in existence today, that doesn’t take away from the fact that this movie is a surefire classic. It is absolutely the pick-me-up film you need this holiday season, and a triumph for its filmmaker, firmly establishing her in the upper echelon of the Hollywood elite. Greta Gerwig has come a long way, and now the world of Hollywood is firmly in her grasp. Never did I ever think I'd be this hyped for a Barbie film.
My Number: 9/10
"Like" Enter the Movies on Facebook for the latest and greatest on all things movies! OR ELSE FACE THE CONSEQUENCES OF A KILLER RABBIT. Sorry about this one, guys. Not my decision. He volunteered. And is just absolute dynamite!