Going to see “Little Women” is like swaddling yourself in goodness and pleasure, where even the most melancholy of circumstances feels surmountable. The beauty of “Little Women” has been captured time and again, and Gerwig’s decision to stick to the trajectory of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel was undoubtedly the right call. So, while you won’t be surprised or taken aback by anything during these 135 minutes, you’ll surely still be dazzled.
The majority of the dazzle, of course, comes from Gerwig’s casting and directing prowess. The ensemble (Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep and, last but very much not least, Timothée Chalamet) worked under Gerwig like they’d been doing it their entire lives, and Gerwig flushed out the intricacies of each character and expertly paired them to the actor’s strengths.
The result is a movie that left me smiling ear-to-ear for 90 percent of the film, the grin pausing only at the truly necessary point -- if you don’t know what I’m talking about, ask Joey Tribbiani. Even as Jo and Laurie succumb to their fate, I was inwardly cheering, so truthful and honest was Ronan and Chalamet’s exchange.
In a film full of genuine empathy and a subtle yet convincing feminist agenda, these three major moments stood out.
Gerwig’s ability to communicate her feminism angle with her take on “Little Women” without pounding us over the head with it was most evident during this speech, where Ronan tearfully delivered Jo’s desire to be taken more seriously as an intelligent and self-reliant woman versus one that is only good for love and marriage.
The kicker, though, was that last line, “But I’m so lonely.”
Haven’t we all been there? Desperate to make a name for ourselves in the world, to prove that we can do it all on our own, but still vying for companionship and wanting to be loved?
Gerwig pulls off explaining 21st-century strife with 19th-century dialogue. Be vulnerable, but not weak; be independent, but a homemaker. Make something of yourself, but only if you can still be a devoted wife and mother. This, you see, is the ingenuity of Gerwig as a writer: Her story never wavers from its setting or sacrifices the timely circumstances of her characters to push her point along, but it translates nonetheless.
Jo is fiercely representative of and put off by her gender’s struggles while also being truthfully vulnerable to them, and it struck a chord in the modern-day viewer.
Pugh is about to become your favorite actress. At first, the Oxford-born 23-year-old’s American accent falls roughly on the ear and out of place, the deep caliber of her voice not quite sitting right (and this is alongside Emma Watson, whose American accent has been heavily critiqued in the past -- though I’ll throw her a bone and say she did fine this time around). But it grows on you, sneakily becoming the voice you’re yearning to hear among all the chatter and talking-over-each-other that Gerwig has her characters engage in pretty often.
Let’s remember that Pugh took on perhaps the most challenging role. Readers and viewers alike historically dislike Amy March; she’s a frivolous, selfish child, they say, and “stole,” for lack of a better word, Laurie from Jo. Turning Amy from the butt of a literary joke into a perceptive, sensible woman while still maintaining her youthfulness as she ages and marries was no small feat.
Even so, Pugh’s scenes as 14-year-old Amy were pristine, that physicality of her voice adding a depth to the character that was unexpected and entertaining -- the rapid, filter-less dialogue Gerwig employed her with suited Pugh in a new and interesting way. You wouldn’t think that the tone of someone’s voice could make a character so intriguing, yet there’s Amy March.
And it was even more impressive when juxtaposed with 20-year-old Amy, the level-headed, wise-beyond-her-years woman whose maturity, while a by-product of her Aunt March’s light manipulation and prodding, bathed her in a wholly sophisticated light. Pugh’s ability to portray both young and older Amy so convincingly within the same two-hour window drew me right in.
Beyond her ability to transform the character of Amy so brilliantly into someone you root for, Pugh delivered the most compelling monologue after Jo’s. Gerwig had previously revealed that Amy’s statements on marriage as an economic arrangement were inspired by Meryl Streep, and Pugh did it emphatic justice. It was a stroke of genius to have the youngest March express the limitations of marriage for women during Alcott’s time; that decision, in a way, struck gold even more than it would have had, say, Meg been the one to struggle with it.
It’s fairly common knowledge that “Little Women” was written based on Alcott’s own family, Jo being modeled after herself and other characters based on her sisters. But what Gerwig impressed me with was the lengths she went to in order to steep her Jo's character so deeply in Alcott’s history.
For one, Gerwig brought Alcott’s benevolence for her family to light. An older Jo March writes not for herself -- she won’t even put her name on her published stories -- but for her family, so she can get paid and send money home to her mother and ailing sister.
“I wanted to give the woman [Alcott] her due,” Gerwig said to the crowd at the film’s LA screening. “She had to save her family with her writing.”
Ronan acted as Louisa May Alcott herself, even swapping hands while she wrote to highlight how Alcott taught herself to be ambidextrous in order to keep writing through hand cramps. Ronan brings a story about domestic life (modeled after her sisters, of course) to a publisher, convinced it won’t sell. This book is, of course, “Little Women.”
These details, too, serve Gerwig’s (assumed) intention to relate the story to a more modern narrative. Just as Alcott fought for her copyright back when “Little Women” was published, Jo does in the film. Ronan most recently likened Alcott’s fight to Taylor Swift’s discography battle with her old record label, who have kept ownership of her master recordings. It's relevant!
Most importantly, though, Gerwig included the debate over the ending and copyright of her novel. When actually getting the book published, Alcott imbibed the character with her own desire to stay unmarried and independent, earning a living as a writer, but she was instructed to marry the main character off in order to sell it to her publisher. By including a scene around that chapter of Alcott’s history, Gerwig and Ronan let us get close to Alcott.
Gerwig and her cast created a retelling that didn’t just reiterate a story we already know and love, but allowed us to get a glimpse into Alcott’s impressive and inspiring journey to give us this story.