With her new, semi-revisionist version of Little Women, Greta Gerwig cements herself as one of the leading young voices in film today. This effort successfully combines one of the best casts of the year with a smart and original take on the source material.
Little Women was published by Louisa May Alcott in the 1860s, telling the story of the Massachusetts-dwelling March sisters and their coming of age in the years during and after the Civil War. Prior to the current version, there had already been six movie adaptations — going as far back as the silent era — with the most recent one being Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film, which was released nearly twenty-five years to the day before this latest.
Greta Gerwig, who both wrote and directed the film, makes some changes to the narrative, jumping back and forth in time and also inserting a meta-textual epilogue about Jo March seeking to publish her novel, and negotiating the terms for doing so. There are parallels to the modern day, but they’re subtle, and while the time-jumping takes some getting used to at first, it’s ultimately not that hard to follow.
The director also deserves credit for assembling a cast that’s nearly a who’s-who of today’s most talented actresses. As Little Women‘s four March sisters, Gerwig has cast her Lady Bird leading actress Saoirse Ronan as Jo March, Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, and Eliza Scanlen (so chilling in HBO’s Sharp Objects) as Beth. Oh, and Laura Dern, AND Meryl Streep, as the girls’ mother and aunt, respectively.
On the male side, Chris Cooper, Bob Odenkirk, and Tracy Letts appear, with Cooper playing a much better-drawn father character than he did earlier this fall in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. It’s also been a good year for Letts, who also had a meaty part in Ford v. Ferrari. Meanwhile, Timothée Chalamet plays Laurie, a gentleman who might stand to learn that there are other families in the world, and some of them have women who he could possibly date.
While neither Streep or Dern is given much to do, all four young actresses make a huge impression; this starts with Ronan, doing some of her best work to date as the aspiring writer Jo, and Pugh brings new dimensions to Amy, a character depicted in most Little Women adaptations as a loathsome brat. A large percentage of the early discourse about this film has had fans of the novel and earlier movies noticing that Pugh has made them like Amy for the first time ever.
Florence Pugh, between this, Midsummer, and Fighting With My Family, is really having a hell of a year, which some of us saw this coming with her amazing, chilling performance back in 2017 in Lady Macbeth.
I also enjoyed Chalamet’s performance, although it’s a step down from his part as the bourgeois teenaged communist in the second act of Gerwig’s Lady Bird. But more than anything else, Gerwig’s Little Women is about the relationships between the sisters, which feel lived in and real.
There’s certainly a chance that Little Women purists will revolt over the changes, but I give Greta Gerwig credit for giving modern urgency to a story that’s literally from the century before last. And having made two outstanding films that are very different from one another, I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.