Greta Gerwig has delivered something incredible here. The cast, Gerwig’s story, and the visuals are all top of their class. See this one immediately.
I remember when the first trailers hit theaters. The Christmas-adornment, the music, the costuming – every choice felt saccharine. Little Women would be feel-good mush, I declared. A pricey Hallmark movie.
You can imagine then the irony that I felt watching the publisher deny Saoirse Ronan’s manuscript. I’m paraphrasing, but he says it is unbelievable, not “spicy,” and demands that it ends with the leading girl married. He simultaneously wants and doesn’t want her story to be the cloying fair I anticipated.
He was proven wrong by Ronan’s Jo – myself, by writer/director Greta Gerwig.
Just as she intended.
It is warm and sweet, yes. But it’s also complex, suggesting a yearning for simpler but harder times while gasping for the dangers of attainment and independence.
Now that I know anything about Little Women (I had been self-misled as a child to believe that it was a Thumbelina–esque story involving four several-inches-tall women), it makes perfect sense why this would be Gerwig’s follow up to Lady Bird.
What does life become when you succeed or fail to attain the rose-colored-self you painted in adolescence?
This idea, central to the story, is explored through different lenses, including career, talent, family, and love. The four sisters are the vehicle for this thematic study, and each shares some piece of this lens.
But I wasn’t able to see that yet.
When the final shot came around, I had decided: It was pretty good! It was a sweet story with some great acting. That was it. Nothing more.
And the next day, I realized I had watched Gerwig’s mastery over this theme.
She wraps up the story by delivering a positive and negative answer to the central question at the same time. They exist in an ambiguous neutral space. The viewer, not the text decide the “true” ending. It suggests a truth, but never enforces it. You take away what you brought with you.
Of course, none of this works without a sincere attachment to the characters, and thereby their exploration of the theme. Their actors achieve this wonderfully.
Emma Watson plays her desire for a domestic life with a deep sincerity, and it’s never shown to be less-than. Eliza Scanlan, who I fully expected to uncover a piano made of teeth, was naively wise, acting as a constant foil against the aging sisters. Saoirse Ronan continues to prove that she is one of the most talented actors of her generation.
But Florence Pugh is the real standout. Her turn as the second-youngest sister, always being second to her older sisters while not given the pass of being the baby, was astonishing. Pugh plays it with fury, at her sisters, at herself, at her capacity for anger. She wants more and nothing. She believes she is entitled to a bright future but yearns for a simple past. It is something to watch.
What is there to say about Laura Dern and Meryl Streep that hasn’t already been said? Streep could be asleep, and we wouldn’t care. And the Dernaissance is alive and well.
But the best casting decision, by a country mile, was Bob Odenkirk as the father. I have no idea why he is in this movie. He has three, perhaps four lines of dialogue total. He’s a prolific comedic actor, but here he is used for genuine warmth and paternal love and pride. It is a delightfully, strange decision.
All said and done though, this movie belongs to Gerwig. She took something that, so far as I can tell from the Wikipedia summary, is a relatively straight forward story told across two books, and complicated it with non-linear storytelling, blurred reality, and biographical inserts. And the result is a movie that feels riskier, and thereby more rewarding.
I can’t say it would be better if they were Thumbelina sized, but I do want to throw it out there if Gerwig is looking to do a sequel.
Writer-director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) has crafted a Little Women that draws on both the classic novel and the writings of Louisa May Alcott, and unfolds as the author’s alter ego, Jo March, reflects back and forth on her fictional life. In Gerwig’s take, the beloved story of the March sisters – four young women each determined to live life on her own terms — is both timeless and timely. Portraying Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth March, the film stars Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, with Timothée Chalamet as their neighbor Laurie, Laura Dern as Marmee, and Meryl Streep as Aunt March.
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