Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
PG, 134 minutes
Directed by: Greta Gerwig
Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s LITTLE WOMEN shows audiences that she’s got a magic trick up her sleeves – from the opening image of star Saorise Ronan psyching herself up to burst through the heavy doors of a publishing house, to the final shot where we meet the character in an elegant, emotional, visceral juxtaposition. She’s lovingly and respectfully adapted author Louisa May Alcott’s novel about four tight-knit sisters growing up in Massachusetts in the aftermath of the Civil War, offering a perfect, passionate portrait of a timeless classic reinvented for a new generation. As told in a non-linear fashion, this enduring coming-of-age tale takes on a whole new context and resonance, making for a truly satiating, exhilarating delight.
This retelling begins not when the women are little, but rather when they are grown, embarking on their adult lives apart from each other. Headstrong tomboy Jo March (Ronan) is living in New York City as a struggling writer when she meets Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), who challenges her skills. Her older sister Meg (Emma Watson), once a debutante, is now married with two young kids and wrestling with feelings of financial inadequacy thanks to her husband’s (James Norton) meager income. The youngest, and perhaps most dramatic sister, Amy (Florence Pugh) is traveling Paris as their wealthy Aunt March’s (Meryl Streep) companion, reading, painting and learning to be a proper socialite. As Jo’s self-doubts surrounding her career aspirations rise, Marmie (Laura Dern) calls her back to their modest family home in Concord when quietly courageous, beloved middle sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen) falls ill.
Transitions in and out of flashbacks is where the majority of the picture’s vital vigor is found. Gerwig fuses a connection between contrasting emotions in the March sisters’ situations and struggles. She glides back and forth on the timeline, letting the emotional pull of each scene fluidly feed into another. A warm memory of the hometown dance where Jo first meets Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence (Timothée Chalamet) is stoked when she dances joyfully with Friedrich. In a later time-shift, Gerwig cross-cuts a shot of Laurie longingly looking up at Jo writing in the attic with Frederich looking up at her through a window in the boarding house.
Each one of these ladies’ prevailing personalities reflects those inside all of us women – traits that make us dynamic, unique beings. Gerwig understands this, bringing a renewed sense of relatability through the use of non-sequential storytelling methods. Though this renovated structure might be a little confusing for those unfamiliar with Alcott’s masterpiece, Gerwig’s innovative, refreshing approach to the timeless story transcends the conceit thanks to her deft ability to deliver absorbing, connective emotional through lines. She weaves these distinct story threads into an entirely refashioned fabric.
Gerwig captures the March home’s beguiling chaos with cross-talk and rapid-fire responses. There’s an electric energy powering the love of these sisters, their parents and friends. They learn selflessness and sacrifice, which in turn inspires those around them to reciprocate with graciousness, generosity and compassion. Lighter moments sparkle with authenticity, thanks in no small part to the uniformly-spectacular cast. Plus, Gerwig challenges artistic convention by having a few characters break the fourth wall, addressing the camera directly whenever a letter is written and read.
Most importantly, Gerwig never loses track of their heartrending individual travails. All remain in the foreground, even when placed on an interlaced timeline. In doing so, she digs deep into her source material’s feminist leanings: Amy laments she’ll have to marry rich as there are few other options for her. Jo challenges the notion of an unmarried woman’s place in society in a lively discussion with Aunt March.
Male characters consistently serve to augment these ladies’ arcs. Yet their journeys are never dimmed or diminished because the women outshine them. They experience change for the better thanks to the ladies’ presences in their lives, sparking their own agency to ally with them. While romantic interest is at the heart of most of the men, the platonic relationship between a gruff, grieving man, the elder Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), and Beth is perhaps the most poignant and affecting. The camera lingers on Mr. Laurence overhearing Beth play a familiar song on his deceased daughter’s piano. It’s a genuinely moving moment as he listens to the dulcet tones filling his home once again with life – one that’s given air for the performer to inhabit beautifully.
Helping to keep the two timelines straight in the audience’s minds, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux ascribes a visual signature to the pair of time periods: A golden, saturated, effused filter applied in their youth, thematically reflecting their rosier outlook, and a cooler, blue-gray scale applied in their present timeline. This all comes to a head in the climax where Beth is forced to fight off a debilitating illness twice.
Composer Alexandre Desplat’s score complements the character-driven action without being overbearing. It sonically contextualizes a feminine fortitude in both the enveloping symphonic moments and the softer, delicate ones. Sound design also comes into play, especially in Mr. Dashwood’s (Tracy Letts) office as he makes corrections on Jo’s writing. The heightened scratch of his sharp-tipped pen, almost cutting through the thin paper, and the hard slap of the pages onto his desk put us directly in her head as she hears these caustic sounds. This is contrasted later when his cuts aren’t as severe, speaking to Jo’s newfound sense of confidence.
Though many versions of Alcott’s literary classic have entered and exited our pop culture zeitgeist, Gerwig’s iteration cements itself amongst the best cinematic translations (the 1949 and 1994 versions), and blessedly dodges the worst (2018’s clumsily modernized version, which also attempted a non-linear format). Whether this story is already ingrained in your soul, or if you’re just now discovering Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, LITTLE WOMEN is sure to move you to both laughter and tears.
LITTLE WOMEN opens on Christmas Day.