Review: ‘Little Women,’ Big Hearts

dfn_little women_poster_300Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Timothée Chalamet star in the new adaptation, written for the screen and directed by Greta Gerwig.

Oh, happy days!

Little Women
The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding communities on Wednesday, December 25, 2019, via Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Plugging directly into the buzzing energy of New York City before the turn of the 19th century, Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s enduring classic instantly connects with the aspirations of a young, modern audience.

In the post-Civil War era, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) wants to write — strike that, she needs to write — and so she is overjoyed when she receives a desperately-sought nod of approval from Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), the stern editor of a literary magazine. (Knowing that Letts, an acclaimed playwright himself, portrayed Ronan’s father in Gerwig’s previous film, Lady Bird, brings an additional, charged layer of emotions to the brief scene.)

Soon, however, new schoolteacher Jo learns that she is needed by her family in New England, prompting several extended flashbacks to her youth, when she was a teenager growing up with her sisters and mother in humble surroundings.

Led by their dearly loved mother Marmee (Laura Dern), the family supports each other in loving fashion while their father (Bob Odenkirk) is away at war. Each of the siblings display distinctive personalities and varying instincts for what they want to do in life, from the pragmatic Meg (Emma Watson) to writerly Jo to sickly Beth (Eliza Scanlen) to bratty Amy (Florence Pugh).

Like their sister Jo, Beth and Amy manifest similar creative instincts — musical and artistic, respectively — but those instincts are moved to the back burner as the years advance and they become consumed by greater priorities. Jo, however, remains driven by her need to express herself in words.

This being the late 19th century, all women are expected to marry and fulfill their customary duties as wives and mothers. Meg and Amy become resigned to their fates, as it were, making the best of their circumstances and the staunchly conversation cultural mores that are enforced upon them by society at large. Poor Beth, however, is overwhelmed by her weak physical constitution, which leaves her dependent upon the kindness of others.

Jo, then, is the only family member who has the goal of smashing the boundaries that have been placed around her. She damps down any romantic inclinations she might feel in regard to wealthy neighbor boy Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), instead compelled to follow the inner drive she feels to tell meaningful stories.

She has to get them out! Clearly, Greta Gerwig feels a similar urgency. The actress began her performing career on the screen in a series of so-called “mumblecore” indie shorts, features, and TV shows, often in collaboration with Joe Swanberg, with whom she directed Nights and Weekends (2008). Even before that, she co-wrote Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007). She began collaborating with Noah Baumbach on the marvelous Francis Ha (2012), followed by Mistress America (2015), leading to her solo writing/directing splash with Lady Bird.

All that to say, Greta Gerwig modernizes the material, giving the characters and the themes a fresh snap. They don’t feel like they are honor-bound to live by the societal standards of the day; they may follow them, or appear to cave in to the pressure of expectations, yet all the women — including Meryl Streep as Aunt March, who consistently bucks traditional restraints — exude an independent spirit.

They may follow what is expected of them, but it’s their choice to do so, which makes the film feel resoundingly modern and very much needed.

In the first part of the film, I was especially mindful of Florence Pugh’s extraordinary, adept ability to portray the same character as a bratty, willful 13-year-old girl and also as a rapidly-maturing, very adult 20-year-old woman. In the second half, Saoirse Ronan’s portrayal regains the center stage, and rightly so, in view of the importance of the decisions that she makes and how it affects the other members of her family. It’s a beautiful, deft performance.

Summing up: Follow your heart, look out for others, and be happy in life with a settled spirit.

For more information about the film, visit the official site.