There have been so many adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel Little Women that it’s hard to imagine anything new to bring to yet another retread of the material. Then along comes Greta Gerwig, hot off her impressive directing debut Lady Bird, to add her own contemporary spin. Actually, feminist principles (as well as lifelong spinster Alcott’s suspicion of marriage) have always been inherent in the story, if perhaps not expressed so obviously as in Gerwig’s version.
But the most interesting thing Gerwig does is combine the adventures of Alcott’s fictional March sisters with the journey of Alcott herself in getting her story published. Through Alcott’s surrogate, Jo—the budding writer in the March family—Gerwig inserts the author’s early career writing “scandalous” magazine stories for money, and her tribulations with her patronizing male publisher. This provides a solid counterpoint to the familiar domestic tale, and helps to ground the non-linear careening of flashbacks to March family life that inspires Jo to write her first novel.
Gerwig begins the movie after the March sisters have gone their separate ways. Jo (Saoirse Ronan, who is absolutely wonderful) is living in a boarding house in New York City, trying to get her stories published. Meg (Emma Watson), the eldest, is married and raising her own small children. Amy (Florence Pugh), the youngest, is in Paris, studying art, as companion to the sisters’ rich, ferocious Aunt March (a delicious Meryl Streep).
As their individual stories continue, a roundelay of flashbacks and memories sketch in the details of the shared backstory we know. The girls grow up in Concord, Massachusetts, with their fragile sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and their warm, pragmatic mother Marmee (Laura Dern)—who teaches them charity and generosity while their father is off fighting in the Civil War. Their lives change with the arrival of Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), grandson of their wealthy, reclusive neighbor Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper).
Laurie becomes an honorary March as they all come of age together; he and tomboyish Jo become best friends. (In one very funny scene, he also crashes their Girl’s Club, in which the sisters mimic gentleman’s clubs by sporting trousers and pretending to smoke pipes and sip brandy.) Chalamet is as coltish, handsome, and mischievous as the part requires, and Jo’s initial rejection of him as a romantic partner makes as little sense as ever. (Chalk it up to Alcott’s distaste for matrimony.)
But none of the movie’s romantic relationships are quite persuasive, even while faithful to the novel. Jo’s literal pursuit of shy Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrell) in the finale is exhilarating, but feels unearned because the last scene they’d had together (about an hour of screen time earlier) ended discordantly. If there was an interim scene of rapprochement, it didn’t make the final cut. When Laurie begins to court Amy, we feel, as she fears, that she’s just a substitute for Jo, and, sadly, we are never convinced otherwise.
Pugh (last seen in Midsommar) is a formidable actress; her icy turn in the movie Lady Macbeth (not based on the Shakespeare play) a couple of years ago was mesmerizing. But with her deep voice and enormous self-possession, she often seems too mature and sophisticated for Amy, the youngest and, initially, the flightiest of the March sisters.
Meanwhile, the elliptical time frame makes sense at first, as scenes of the sisters’ giddy and riotous youth play off against their more adult concerns, while the bonds between them deepen. But it becomes more difficult to keep track of what’s happening—especially toward the end, when the big emotional payoffs are somewhat dampened by temporal confusion.
Still, the movie exudes so much exuberant and heartfelt goodwill that it’s impossible to dislike. And the sly bracketing story of Jo vs. her condescending publisher (a well-cast Tracy Letts) builds to a satisfying girl-power crescendo that surely would have pleased Alcott herself.
*** (out of four)
With Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet and Meryl Streep. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig. A Columbia Pictures release. Rated PG. 135 minutes.