You need to know where I’m coming from on this one. There is no book more central to my life than Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. My mother, Josephine Baskin Minow, has been Jo since she first read Little Women when she was a child, And now our children call her Marmee. I loved it so much that I read all the other Alcott books on the library shelf (I especially recommend Eight Cousins and An Old Fashioned Girl). Little Women has been central to the lives of young women for more than 150 years, inspired by its heroine, inspired by Alcott herself, Jo March-fiercely loyal, impetuous, impatient, and a writer, both eager and reluctant to find her own voice. Authors who name the book as a major influence range from Cynthia Ozick, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ursula Le Guin and Nora Ephron to “Twilight”’s Stephenie Meyer.
Alcott’s semi-autobiographical story of four sisters has been adapted many times, including a Broadway musical, a 48-chapter Japanese anime series, an opera, and films starring Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Winona Ryder. The most recent BBC version (of four) was shown in the United States on PBS. One of two major adaptations last year was a modern-day retelling with a quartet of appealing young actresses, adapted with skill and understanding by writer/director Clare Niederpruem.
So, my standards and expectations could not have been higher and it is my very great pleasure to tell you that this new film from writer/director Greta Gerwig exceeded them all. Writer/director Greta Gerwig not only loves and understands the book, she also appreciates that in 2019 we are only beginning to catch up to Alcott’s vision of what is possible for young women and for all of us. Those who do not know Alcott’s work or have only seen the early versions may think that Gerwig has “modernized” the story. But every part of it comes from Alcott (some from other writings) and every part of it is entirely consistent with her fierce, independent, and devoted spirit and rebellious energy. And Saoirse Ronan is the best Jo March yet, her long-limbed coltishness not so much “boyish” as vitally engaged in a world that cannot always keep up with her.
The book was originally written in two parts, but the second volume (called Good Wives) has been a part of what we know as Little Women for more than a century. Gerwig begins the story in the middle of the second book as the now-adult Jo (a teenager in the first volume) meets with a newspaper publisher (a charmingly crusty and wry performance from playwright Tracy Letts, last seen as Henry Ford II in “Ford v. Ferrari”). In case we are not as quick as he is to see through her claim to be bringing stories written by a “friend,” Gerwig lets us see the ink that still stains her fingers. When her story is accepted (with the moralizing parts cut out), she exuberantly races home.
Then, as we will throughout the film, we go back and forth between the two parts of the story, indicated by different color pallattes, the warmer hues for the earlier years, when the girls were all at home and their father (Bob Odenkirk) was a Union volunteer in the Civil War. There were struggles and growing pains, but there was also a sense of purpose and possibility that is not as clear in the cooler-hued older years, when Jo is in New York living in a boarding house, and Amy (Florence Pugh) is touring Europe and studying art. Pugh may be too old for Amy in the early scenes, but she and Gerwig give Amy far more depth than any previous portrayal (perhaps including Alcott’s). Emma Watson is lovely as oldest sister Meg (obligatory complaint about what was left out of this version — the scenes of Meg coming to John’s defense when Aunt March attacks him and the scene of her showing off her “new dress” to him). Gerwig’s script softens the professor’s critique of Jo’s more lurid stories-for-hire and his involvement in getting the book-within-a-book published, but the scene of his telling her that the melodramatic stories she is writing for money are not good is still an important turning point.
Laura Dern plays Marmee, a woman of character, courage, and intention. The private moment she takes in the foyer of the house to make sure she can greet her daughters with good cheer on Christmas morning after caring for the impoverished Hummels is a small master class of acting. When Marmee tells Jo that she still struggles with anger every day, we see where Jo got her inner fire and how inner fire can become the foundation for determination and principle.
And then there is Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, the sensitive boy whose temperament is protected from becoming headstrong and careless by the example of the March family, their attitude toward work and also their attitude toward fun. Like Laurie to Jo, Chalamet is a perfect match for his “Lady Bird” co-star Ronan, and we could happily watch a whole movie of them putting on plays, attending riotous meetings of the Pickwick Society, and skating on the pond.
It is still one of the all-time great coming-of-age stories of a family and an artist finding her voice. By putting making the early year portion of the film flashbacks that comment on, provide context for, and deepen the “present-day” storylines, Gerwig makes us ready for a perfect ending that brings Alcott, her fictional avatar, and the story of all of us who have tried to tell our stories together.
Parents should know that this film includes a sad death and reference to other deaths including the death of a baby, family stress and conflict, and brief smoking and drinking.
Family discussion: Which sister is most like you? Was the publisher right about the ending to the story? Why do so many women, especially writers, say that this story was their most important inspiration?
If you like this, try: the book by Louisa May Alcott and the other movie and miniseries versions of this story
Originally published at https://moviemom.com.