Although it’s billed as another adaptation of the venerable Louisa May Alcott novel, the latest big-screen version of Little Women belongs to its filmmaker as much as its author.
Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) freshens up the 19th century source material with an eye toward modern feminism and empowerment. Such enhancements are hit-and-miss, but the style and performances make this charming and confident retelling worthwhile.
The story shuffles the chronology while still centering on four sisters in a New England family during the Civil War. While their father is away and their mother (Laura Dern) tends to the family’s affairs elsewhere, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) helps to provide for the family through tutoring work.
Meg (Emma Watson) is a married teacher, while Amy (Florence Pugh) is an artist who forges a bond with her great aunt (Meryl Streep), a wise yet snobbish widow. The youngest sister, Beth (Eliza Scanlen), is a troubled pianist.
From there, the film jumps into various flashbacks during which the siblings experience young romance to varying degrees. Meanwhile, the outspoken Jo is an aspiring author trying to earn her place in the publishing world. “I’m so sick of people thinking that love is all a woman is fit for,” she says.
Little Women provides a visually striking depiction of time and place, supplemented by sumptuous sets and costumes.
Plus, the film is stacked with terrific performances among its strong-willed leads, with Pugh a particular standout among the sisters as the conflicted Amy. Ronan exudes an effortless charisma, and Timothee Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) again showcases his versatility as the mischievous neighbor Laurie.
Gerwig ensures her film won’t fall victim to the trappings of a stuffy period piece. Rather, her nonlinear screenplay is vibrant and well-paced, cutting a few subtle narrative corners while still allowing the rich character dynamics to shine through.
Not all of her gimmicks work, however, with the anachronistic dialogue sometimes feeling like a forced effort to connect with a contemporary audience. Purists might dismiss such updates as pandering.
Still, Gerwig demonstrates an obvious affection and reverence for the book, capturing its playful spirit while retaining its more dramatic heft. Her film manages to distinguish itself among numerous other versions on stage and screen without settling for cutesy coming-of-age clichés. In other words, Gerwig channels Alcott’s voice while creating her own.