Before watching Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, I sat down with Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation. This was helpful in getting the plot beats of the story, but also seeing how much Gerwig leaves her own stamp on the material. Armstrong’s version is good for what it is, but it feels a bit like visiting a historical preservation site. Everything is pristine with signs off to the side saying “Do not touch.” Gerwig goes for a more immediate approach, carefully walking the line between period picture and anachronistic update. This tightrope act allows Gerwig to make her version of Little Women feel lived-in and youthful without going full Dickinson. Furthermore, by jumbling up the timeline, Gerwig turns the story’s episodic nature to her advantage allowing for more cohesive themes and powerful character arcs. With terrific performances from the whole cast—Florence Pugh and Timothee Chalamet being particularly excellent—Gerwig has made an electrifying and entertaining tribute to Alcott’s work without being imprisoned by it.
The new version of Little Women starts with the March sisters—brash and creative Jo (Saorise Ronan), the conventional and traditional Meg (Emma Watson), the kind and quiet Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and the raucous and outspoken Amy (Pugh)—are all living with the consequences of their decisions. Jo struggles to be a serious writer; Meg married for love but now struggles with relative poverty; Beth is left weakened due to a health issue; and Amy has a tumultuous relationship with the Marches’ old friend and neighbor, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Chalamet). The story then cuts back seven years to see the bond between the March sisters and how it changed and transformed through various episodes. As the tale moves between the two time periods, we witness a unique coming of age for these young women and what their bonds truly mean.
This is the eighth film adaptation of Little Women, but Gerwig immediately sets it apart from all the others not only by changing the timeline, but letting it feel youthful. The writer-director doesn’t need to modernize it with contemporary slang or actions, but simply by showing her characters as young people with all the silliness and strong emotions that entails. Little Women never renders its characters frivolous, always sympathizing with their emotions, but like with her previous movie, Lady Bird, Gerwig is able to show a coming-of-age story by providing enough distance so that the actions exist in context rather than dictating the tone of the piece.
Gerwig shows tremendous growth with only her second feature by being able to bend the period setting to her purposes while never overshadowing it. Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography is lush and inviting with some genius compositions that never feel contrived of forced. Alexandre Desplat delivers another lovely score full of rich melodies that capture the youth and vivacity of the March sisters. Everything just comes together beautifully on a craft level and it’s astounding that Gerwig has this much mastery of a production this early in her directing career.
Unsurprisingly, her work with actors continues to impress, but special attention must be paid to Pugh and Chalamet. The 1994 version got a little too hung up on characters’ ages, splitting Amy March into a young (Kirsten Dunst) and older (Samantha Mathis) version while conveying Laurie’s age with ill-advised facial hair. Gerwig wisely trusts in performance to convey age and change, and the dividends are astounding. The 23-year-old Pugh may not look thirteen (the age of Amy March in the past), but she knows how to behave thirteen, and watching her sell both the immaturity and the maturity of Amy as she grows up is astounding. Chalamet remains dreamy as ever, but he can also break your heart completely, especially when his relationship with Jo comes to a head. Additionally, since the time jump puts the relationship between Amy and Laurie at the beginning of the movie, it really allows both actors to shine and hold the screen.
I had high hopes for Gerwig’s version of Little Women, but I wasn’t prepared for how enraptured I would be by it. I’ve never read the book and only saw the 1994 version a couple days before Gerwig’s movie. I am far from a Little Women aficionado. But as a layman coming at this material with minimal background, I was completely swept up in the characters, their stories, and how Gerwig was able to add more cohesion while also adding some strong commentary about how the economics of marriage matter far more to women during this age than it does to men. But Gerwig never needs to step outside the film to make A Statement. Like Alcott, she has the material and she has the talent, and that’s more than enough to leave a lasting impact.
Little Women is now playing in theaters everywhere.