If you know the story already, Greta Gerwig's "Little Women" is a masterpiece. But if you don't, welcome to chaos.
Greta Gerwig’s film interpretation of the classic novel Little Women is gorgeous and thought-provoking, each scene woven together with the next like a colorful, complicated tapestry that—to the seasoned fan of the March family—would look like an absolute masterpiece. But lacking a linear timeline, the film could also come off as chaotic and confusing to viewers who are new to the classic coming-of-age story.
Let’s be honest. At this point in American history, if you don’t know at least a few of the major plot points of Little Women (i.e., the fact that Beth dies), then that is entirely your fault. Even so, the film plays like a highlights reel, hitting on most of the famous scenes you expect, but out of order—like a collage of Little Women’s greatest hits. Fan service, really.
Saoirse Ronan as Josephine March, Courtesy of IMDb
When the movie starts, the March sisters are already in adulthood. Jo is living in New York, and Amy is in Europe, while Beth and married Meg hold down the fort with Marmee and Father in Concord, Massachusetts. These scenes in "present day" are whiter, bleaker, simpler. But then we jump seven years back in time with colorful, busy backdrops, all the scenes shot in subtly warm hues. The change in undertones (and potentially Jo's hairstyle) is really the only way to keep track of where we are in time as we jump, almost thematically, from one time period to the other, accumulating all the favorite moments and marking them off on our checklist as we go.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s done beautifully. The music, the cinematography, the direction, the acting—all are superb.
Saoirse Ronan plays a perfect whimsically tomboyish Jo (a feat that earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama), and each of the sisters is well-cast. In fact, my favorite moments of the film are when all the girls are onscreen together, loud and lively, enjoying sisterly banter and laughter. Laura Dern's Marmee is the rock of the crew, the common thread that brings them all back down to earth.
Eliza Scanlen shines as the vulnerable, loving Beth, and Emma Watson plays dutiful Meg quite well. But the true MVP is Florence Pugh, who breathes new life and sass into Amy, making us care (for perhaps the first time) about her happiness—and understand why and how she ends up with Laurie. Amy is quite possibly my favorite character in this adaptation, and it is Pugh's deadpan delivery of age-old lines ("Jo! Your one beauty!") that does the trick.
Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet as Jo and Laurie, Courtesy of IMDb
I was largely unimpressed with Timothée Chalamet as Laurie. I just can't buy into it, no matter how hard I try. Sure, he has a special charm, but in my opinion, his overall look is too frail and fragile to be convincing as a young man worthy of the affections of the March sisters.
As with many American women, Beth’s passing (when I first read it at the age of 9) was my first loss—my first experience with death. And reliving it at the ever-capable hands of Gerwig, Scanlen, and Ronan, hit the most tender spots of my soul, flooding me with all those same raw emotions I first felt three decades ago. The pain is so real, and it was at this point in the film, with tears flowing down my cheeks, that I knew exactly how much these characters have meant to me my entire life.
Eliza Scanlen as Beth March, courtesy of IMDb
If there's one thing Gerwig does masterfully, it's bringing to the forefront the challenges that women faced in the 19th century, attempting to carve out a place for themselves (with or without a husband) in a society built largely for men. Marriage was often seen as a means to economic security, and this is a recurring theme—from Aunt March's (Meryl Streep) pep talk to Amy ("You must marry well. Save your family.") to Jo's heartbreaking admission to Marmee: "I’m so sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it. But I’m so lonely."
The ending, specifically, is left open to interpretation as we struggle to see where the story of Josephine March ends and the real-life story of author Louisa May Alcott begins. Jo's publisher tells her that in order to accept her novel for publication, he needs it to end in marriage. Jo argues briefly, then agrees. In the following (rather fast-moving) scenes, we see German professor Friedrich Bhaer appear randomly at Jo's home in Concord, even though we haven't seen him since the first half of the film. It all seems rather rushed, as if all the loose ends are being tied up neatly and quickly with a bow. It is well-known that Alcott herself never married and that she loosely based Little Women on her own family and life, so this ending begs the question: Is this love-story conclusion meant to be the ending Jo penned for her publisher while she herself remains unmarried, like Alcott's real-life fate? Or does Jo actually end up with Friedrich and still get her book published?
Jo's relationship with Friedrich is never fully developed in the movie, perhaps to add to the ambiguity and possible multiple interpretations of the ending.
Left to right: Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, Saoirse Ronan as Jo, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth, courtesy of IMDb
The movie's nod to feminism and Alcott's lifelong singleness are appropriate at this stage in history. Gerwig draws out those already existent themes in ways other adaptations haven't, helping us dig deeper into the true desires and motivations of each of the sisters as they leave childhood behind and grab hold of what's next. It's a real-life struggle today, just as it was when Alcott first wrote the book 150 years ago. But today we're free to talk about it, discuss it, and empathize post-humously with women born in another era.
All in all, Little Women is a wild ride of emotion—almost like a DisneyWorld attraction, whipping us from one scenario snippet to the next, a series of vignettes that hits highlights of the story but never effectively captures the entire storyline. And that's probably fine, here, in the 21st century, when most people in the theater would be bored by a long, drawn-out play-by-play of a story we all know by heart. In this way, I like to think of Gerwig's interpretation as a Little Women tribute movie—well-done and beautiful, but a film that could not easily stand on its own.