Synopsis: Following the lives of four sisters, Amy, Jo, Beth and Meg, as they come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War. Though all very different from each other, the March sisters stand by each other through difficult and changing times
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton
Director: Greta Gerwig
Running Length: 135 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: It’s been 151 years since Louisa May Alcott wrote her classic novel Little Women and it seems over that time there have been as many adaptations of it on stage and screens big and small. There’s just something timeless about Alcott’s tale of sisters moving through stages of their lives that has spoken to countless generations. Whether you come from a big household or were an only child (like me), there’s something relatable and warmly familiar about the March family, allowing readers to latch on to a particular character and know them well enough to say “I’m a Jo” or “She’s more of a Meg”. No matter how many times we’re exposed to the material, we still laugh at their comedic moments and cry when the reality of life steps in.
Having read the book on more than one occasion and keeping a certain fondness for anything it inspired (stage play, musical, miniseries, film), I could easily call myself a fan and am always willing to give any new interpretation the benefit of the doubt. Heck, over the holiday break I even watched the made-for-television movie The March Sisters at Christmas, a modernized version of the story that took some giant liberties with the source material. (For the record, it wasn’t half bad.) What makes it difficult for me is that I think the much-loved 1994 version is the epitome of success in translation to the screen. Though it had been seen in theaters before in 1933 and again in 1949, something about the ‘90s version just hit all the right notes for me, making it indelible and hard to measure up to. Even so, when I heard Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) was taking on the duties of writer/director for a 2019 take on Little Women, I was interested to see what she would do with it and where it would land on the scale of successful retellings.
For those not familiar with the source material, the bones of Alcott’s story remain the same. The Civil War is going strong and Father (Bob Odenkirk, Long Shot) is on the front lines, leaving his wife Marmee (Laura Dern, Marriage Story) and their four daughters to keep the household going for the duration. Eldest daughter Meg (Emma Watson, The Bling Ring) strives to lead by example, eagerly anticipating a domestic life with a husband and children. That’s quite the opposite of headstrong Jo (Saoirse Ronan, The Host) the de facto leader of the siblings who makes great plans to roam beyond the confines of their Concord, Mass homestead. Shy Beth (Eliza Scanlen, Sharp Objects) is the calming presence, taking solace in her piano playing while the youngest Amy (Florence Pugh, Midsommar) longs for a romanticized life rubbing shoulders with the elite.
Drifting into the March orbit at various times are a sour Aunt (Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins) anxious to see her family lineage continue on well-funded and neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet, Beautiful Boy) whose curiosity and friendship with the sisters quickly turns into something deeper and more heartbreaking. Also playing a part in the episodic developments as the years go by are Laurie’s grandfather (Chris Cooper, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), tutor John Brooke (James Norton, Mr. Turner), and Mr. Bhaer (Louis Garrel, The Dreamers), a professor staying in the same boarding house as Jo when she moves to New York City. As the girls turn to women, they experience love and loss while striving to find their place not just in the outside world but in the small haven they’ve created within the walls of their childhood home.
Thankfully, there are a lot of things to recommend in this adaptation and I largely enjoyed it, even if there are some interesting choices made that don’t always feel effective. It should please fans of the novel, although I’m not sure how easy it would be for newcomers to the story to get into the hearts and minds of our favorite characters. Though set in the appropriate period, Gerwig’s modern voice is front and center and while it doesn’t change the overall impact of Alcott’s novel the emotional beats are delivered in a different way than ever before.
Following up her semi-autobiographical breakout hit Lady Bird, Gerwig has made the intriguing choice to take a non-linear approach to Little Women. Instead of a straight narrative that follows along the years with the family, events are chopped up and rearranged to function as memories or recollections. What this accomplishes is giving the characters the opportunity to look back from the other side of conflict which eventually starts to wreak havoc on the way audiences are involved and invited into the story. I found the first hour a bit of a struggle to stick with and, though well performed by Gerwig’s cast, difficult to keep up with because it bounces around so much. The second hour is more of a challenge to talk about without giving away a crucial bit of plot but suffice it to say turns that in the past had me reaching for the Kleenex barely registered a sniffle in this telling. That’s unfortunate because there’s such rich opportunity to explore the complexities of the heart but how can you take any time for emotion when the next scene may take place years prior, undoing whatever loss we’ve just seen?
The casting announcements for this were exciting at the time because Gerwig has assembled a dynamite team of actors that aren’t necessarily known for being overly earnest with their material. What’s needed is honesty, not an overselling of what is essentially a near perfect piece of American literature. In that respect, the cast is successful; however there are a few elements that I just couldn’t quite get over. For one thing, it’s never clear the ages of the sisters. Pugh looks the oldest of all and she’s playing the youngest while Watson feels like she’d be a more adept Beth than a Meg. Ronan is a wonderful Jo, skillfully presenting her stubbornness without being obnoxious, eventually exposing the raw vulnerability beneath a lifetime of building up a hard-ish surface. Amy is often seen as the flightiest of the March sisters but Gerwig and Pugh have confidently grounded her, showing the character is more worldly-wise than she’s ever been previously given credit for. I quite like Scanlen’s take on Beth, even though she (like her character) gets overshadowed by the other women she shares the screen with.
Not surprisingly, Streep is a wry gas as a fussy relative who is “not always right. But never wrong” and Cooper’s sensitive take on the kindly neighbor is fairly lovely. The two main suitors Gerwig has cast are likely the most problematic for me. As Jo’s elder boarding house friend, Garrel doesn’t create much in the way of sparks with Ronan. It’s a distinctly flat performance and you wonder why Jo would ever have her head turned even a fraction the way Garrel handles the material. I know Gerwig thinks Chalamet can do no wrong but he’s not well-suited for the role of the pining boy next door. Certain finalities of his character don’t ring true, which is perhaps what Gerwig was going for, but it weakens Laurie’s relationship with two key March sisters. Chalamet has the acting chops to give it a go but isn’t the right choice for the role.
In the car on the ride home, I became one of those purist people that wanted this new Little Women to be the way I imagined it to be. I rattled off a list of things that didn’t sit right to my partner, citing the 1994 version as my ideal way to tell the story. That’s not fair to Gerwig or her team, nor is it doing right to the movie as a whole. Just as each generation has discovered Alcott’s everlasting story, so too should a new audience be exposed to the Little Women through their own version on screen. I hold the 1994 effort in high regard and, clearly, this one trails that in my book, yet it shouldn’t ultimately define how it stacks up historically. The tagline for the movie is “Own your own story.” and it can serve as a reminder that the version we have in our head will always supersede anything we can see from another perspective.