After her critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated directorial debut Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig could have taken on any project in the world, and at first glance her choice was a surprisingly safe one. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is one of the most widely read books in North America and has long been seen as a literary classic. That fact and the often stuffy and dated feel of period pieces mean that Gerwig’s new project may seem a world away from the teen angst of Lady Bird. But as fans of the book will know, the narrative of young women struggling to find their places in a world that doesn’t seem to fit them are shared over both the 2018 film and Alcott’s novel from over a century before. It should be unsurprising then that Gerwig is a great fit to direct a thoroughly interesting and timely take on the sweetly radical story of the March sisters.Gerwig’s Lady Bird collaborator Saoirse Ronan returns in a role she was born to play as Jo March, Alcott’s analog for herself whose dreams of becoming a writer and unconventional ways make her an outsider in society even if she’s deeply loved by her own family. Emma Watson takes on the role of Meg, the oldest March sister who longs to be an actress but whose passions are derailed by love. Florence Pugh shines as Amy, the youngest and most abhorrent of the sisters. The quartet is rounded off by Eliza Scanlen, taking on the tragic role of Beth, adding depth and solemn quietness to the well-known character. The March sisters are joined by Timothée Chalamet as the original heartbreaker, Laurie, a role that was apparently made for him. Laura Dern plays the girls’ loving mother, Marmee, and Meryl Streep their rich Aunt March.
Watch the trailer for Little Women below:
It’s a stellar cast that undoubtedly buoys the already interesting adaptation and should draw fans of film out to the Christmas release even if they have little to no interest in the story itself. That story here is played out on two interconnected timelines as Jo remembers her life whilst pursuing her dreams as a writer and balancing that with her familial duties. Ronan’s Jo is a solid protagonist whose stern rejection of the strict society she lives in feels both timely and relatable without making her an unlikable or obnoxious lead. Bringing to life a character who has been so important to so many over a literal century is a hard task but Ronan crafts a bright, brilliant, and brash Jo who stands apart from previous adaptations whilst still feeling like the girl that Alcott created as her fictional stand-in all those years ago.
You don’t need to worry if you’ve never read Little Women because the film and its narrative are easy to follow. The two eras that the movie centers on are taken from the original two-part story that became the bestselling novel. The first is Jo March as an adult living in New York as a writer before heading back to her hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, and the second is the family’s life during the Civil War while their father is away fighting for the Union army. It’s an easy to follow and interesting take on the story which keeps the narrative and over two-hour run time — which can occasionally lag — entertaining. It’s also a format that helps to keep some of Little Women’s biggest surprises… well, especially surprising for those who aren’t that familiar with the source material.
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Despite the fact that Little Women doesn’t feel like it’s reinventing the wheel with its take on a period piece, Gerwig does imbue the film with a lushness and soul that makes it totally charming. The world of the Marches is an immersive one that’s filled with gorgeous detail and wonderful production design from Jess Gonchor. It helps that it’s also stuffed with hilarious, heartfelt characters and great performances from stalwarts like Dern, who puts in a brilliant turn as the sweet and thoughtful matriarch of the Marches, and Streep, who has a lot of fun as the family’s spinster aunt. It’s the young cast who owns the film, though, with Chalamet coming to life as the girls’ horribly suave neighbor and habitual heartbreaker, Laurie. Pugh and Ronan are the other two standouts as the former continues her unbroken streak of perfect performances and the latter leads the cast with aplomb, offering up something truly intricate and inspiring with Jo.
Little Women likely won’t be for everyone. After all, the author herself was hardly enamored with the book that she was encouraged to write for a younger female audience. But just like the unexpected success and near-universal acclaim and love for the original, it’s pretty clear that Gerwig’s take will find a dedicated audience as well as probably becoming a solid Oscar contender. At the least, it’d be surprised to see anything else take the Best Adapted Screenplay award when the Academy convenes in 2020.