“Little Women” Movie Review


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     Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of writing about movies is it gives you the opportunity to follow a filmmaker’s early work and their ascension in the industry as they tackle more ambitious projects.  Having had her breakthrough with 2017’s “Lady Bird”, writer/director Greta Gerwig was clearly ready to move beyond the scope and budget of a smaller indie film and continue the mastery of her craft with a film more suited to her immense talent.  And that film is “Little Women”, a heartfelt and emotional story both adapted for the screen and helmed by Gerwig, as she makes a strong case to receive her second Oscar nomination for directing and writing.  Whether she makes that short list or not is up to the Academy, but either way, “Little Women” is one of the best films of 2019 and stands as a crowning achievement in what is only the filmmaker’s third feature.

     Based on the classic 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott, which follows four sisters as they navigate their lives through the fallout of the Civil War, the story has enjoyed no shortage of film and television adaptations through the years.  Likely the most notable for this generation is director Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film which featured Winona Ryder in her Oscar nominated lead role.  The film was a hit, led by a wonderful cast which also included Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, and Christian Bale among others.  Remaking a time honored classic can be a tricky proposition, as audiences, particularly older ones, will be forced to compare and determine which version will stand the test of time in their own minds.  Just minutes into Gerwig’s film, you’ll realize these comparisons are unnecessary.

     Teaming up once again with her “Lady Bird” star, Saoirse Ronan, who plays the elder sister Jo March, Gerwig creates a time jumping narrative that will require the audience to pay close attention to the intricate storyline.  Scenes begin in one timeframe, and then jump to years earlier or years later without any real context in the first act.  This is something you get used to as the story progresses and its many plot threads become discernible.  As Gerwig’s film unfolds, you realize this may be one of the most complex and layered narratives of any film this year.  And yet it’s a joy to watch, bringing forth an experience that is sure to lift the spirits of audiences who prefer emotion over spectacle.

     Jo March (Ronan), an aspiring and passionate writer, struggles with her place in the world just like any other teenager.  Her younger sisters, Meg (Emma Watson), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and Amy (Florence Pugh), each possess their own talents and aspirations as well.  Amy, who is greatly influenced by her Aunt March (Meryl Streep), dreams of someday marrying a rich man and living a life where she can both provide for her family, as well as continue to hone her abilities as an artist.  Beth and Meg seem to count their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern) as their primary influence.  Their giving nature and kindness, while doing more with less are hallmarks of what their mom stands for.  But Jo is one of those who beats to the sound of her own drum, choosing to ignore the advice of those around her in favor of discovering life via an unconventional path.  At the time, women were not able to make a living sans a husband and needed to marry in order to achieve their financial goals.  With Jo forging a career as a storyteller, can she break the common mold and succeed on her own?

     The men within the story are ever present, serving primarily as romantic interests for each of the sisters, but also as mentors and caregivers.  The most prominent is Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), a young gentlemen who lives in a mansion within a sight line of the March’s more modest home.  His father, Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) is one of the most kind hearted and compassionate people you will ever meet, and his fondness for the March family and the community as a whole remains a heart warming testament to the human spirit throughout the film.  With the family’s father, played by Bob Odenkirk, serving as a Chaplain in the Civil War, the story sees him absent the majority of the time, leaving his wife and daughters to take on many of life’s pitfalls alone.  But it was also the reality of the time with many families losing their husbands and fathers in a war that needed to be fought, but came at a substantial price many still pay for today.

     “Little Women” is a film that explores the relationships we all have in our life, be it with our family, our friends, our spouse, and even our business associates.  Jo leads us through her own story, one which isn’t perfect and has its share of flawed moments.  The irony, of course, being her publisher, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), sees a different end to the story. And just like many do on their social media accounts today, the truth is masked in order to have people believe the protagonist’s tale ends in a way that is traditionally acceptable.  An astounding notion, given the age of the source material. 

     As we would expect, “Little Women” is beautifully shot, evoking the period with stunning costumes and an exquisitely detailed production design.  Ronan again establishes herself as one of the finest actors of her generation (and a sure bet to receive her fourth Oscar nomination), but it is the performances by the entire ensemble cast that bring the story to life.  All of which is made possible by Gerwig’s screenplay, which emphasizes aspects of the story that are eerily comparable to many of the issues we deal with today, including equal pay for women and their standing in an entertainment industry traditionally dominated by men.  In much the same way she did with “Lady Bird”, Gerwig has found a way to channel her own voice through these characters where the themes and ideas that comprise her vision come through loud and clear.  GRADE: A