A hectic opening 15 minutes set the pace for writer-director Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s literary classic. The seventh adaptation (!) of Little Women extracts its tone from its frenetic, distinctive, engrossing quadrivium of stars. Gerwig’s optimistic, feministic take on the 1868 novel uncovers an original film, even on the seventh try.
Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) is an aspiring writer attempting to keep her family financially afloat. Meg March (Emma Watson) is eager to start a family with a man she loves. Amy March (Florence Pugh) is an aspiring painter who hopes to one day be recognized as one of the greats. Beth March (Eliza Scanlen) is a young pianist fighting for her life against a series of illnesses. Toggling between an 1861 and an 1868 timeline, Little Women tracks the four March sisters in adolescence and early adulthood.
Gerwig’s script captures the frantic, amiable aura of her four little women from the opening frame. After selling a short story, Jo sprints across a congested New York avenue, two unusual acts for a woman of the time. The March sisters, the movie reveals, routinely defy gendered restrictions to achieve remarkable things. The ordinary, like marrying for love or donating their Christmas breakfast to the less fortunate, to the extraordinary, which I won’t spoil, but involves ignoring the edicts of a world run by men. Once Little Women’s manic energy settles into the rhythms of its characters, it gives way to cadence and charm.
Little Women is about the feats of four sisters while their father (Bob Odenkirk) is away, fighting for the Union Army. Countless films have followed men off to war, but few have focused on the homestead while the battle raged on. Fewer still have allowed the women left behind their own exploits, flaws, and triumphs. The March sisters, particularly Jo, fight the financial realities of war before women were expected (and allowed) to sustain the economy.
The World Wars permanently altered the role of women in the workforce, but the Civil War pressed women into odd jobs to scrimp and save. While labor norms have shifted since Alcott published the novel, the expectation of a woman’s role as homemaker has largely not. As workplace duties intensify, household duties, including cooking, cleaning, and childcare, remain unchanged. Women are contending with a duality between emotional labor and workplace labor. With Father March at war, the sisters grapple with a double-sided problem which was traditionally addressed by two separate parties. Ironically, 150 years after being published, LIttle Women is as relevant as ever.
Three of the March sisters, Jo, Amy, and Beth, aspire to artistic heights. Jo, the writer, Amy, the painter, and Beth, the pianist, dream of published works, famed art, and sold-out concert halls. Through the course of Little Women, each member of the trio attains a differing level of success. The juxtaposition between that success and the amount of recognition each sister needs to satiate their artistic drive is minute, crafty character building.
Odenkirk, introduced in a somber moment, fits the tone of the film like a wall-mounted, 60” flatscreen TV in the March’s living room. The acting chops are there, but Odenkirk’s scheming and farcical Saul Goodman-like spirit is a poor match for Gerwig’s heartfelt, grounded film. A handful of plot modifications seem to contradict the themes and ending, which Gerwig revised. Additionally, apart from sparse context clues and the freewheeling camera movement of the 1861 scenes, it can be difficult to separate the intertwining timelines.
Amy, commonly viewed as the book’s antagonist, is a layered fan-favorite in Gerwig’s adaptation. The credit belongs to Gerwig’s script and Pugh’s performance. Pugh, a generational talent, is—without contradiction—petulant, wise, and engaging in the role. Gerwig is establishing a troupe that rivals Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro or Steven Spielberg and John Williams or the Coen brothers and Roger Deakins with composer Alexandre Desplat, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, and actors Ronan and Pugh.
Ask Robert Eggers and Jordan Peele: Following a debut masterpiece with a polished, flawless sophomoric film is an impossibility. Gerwig, on the back of the immaculate Lady Bird, adapted a nuanced, coming-of-age literary classic. I’m on record about the value of concocting original stories instead of pre-existing intellectual property, but Gerwig is a savvy maestro conducting an eager orchestra. The routine generosity of Alcott and Gerwig’s little women is cool ointment for a fresh wound. In an era of habitual cruelty, art like Little Women is a welcome respite.