Little Women (2019)

Directed by Greta Gerwig; Written by Greta Gerwig

Greta Gerwig arrives.  

Greta Gerwig is brave. Coming off Lady Bird, an intimate portrayal of one teenage girl’s becoming in the early 2000s, her sophomore feature is a return to thematically familiar waters of how we fall into adulthood and women’s ability to choose their own course of life from thereon, but from working with what’s somewhat familiar (Lady Bird took on elements from Gerwig’s own upbringing), she now opts to film a literary classic that has trunkfuls of cinematic baggage already. 

There’s a danger of creative limitation and of repeating what’s already been done as elapsed time since the last cinematic rendition isn’t enough reason for a retelling, and a mediocre product that dissatisfies fans of both director and source material can feel likely. However, with an embarrassment of riches on her call sheet, an evolved visual eye, and a sensual approach to the novel, Gerwig proves herself capable of grand cinematic undertaking. 

Greta Gerwig has an incredible cast at her disposal. Saoirse Ronan, star of Lady Bird, returns as Jo Marsh, and she’s flanked by two of America’s greatest working actresses, Laura Dern and Meryl Streep, and fellow next-generation british stars Emma Watson and Florence Pugh as her sisters Meg and Amy. If those names weren’t hard enough to make room for on the poster, Timothée Chalamet also stars as neighbour/suitor Theodore Laurence.  

Ronan, Watson and Pugh are joined by Eliza Scanlen and together they’re the March sisters, the titular characters of Little Women, a title meant to denote the potential of each. Headstrong all, capable and limited in each their own way, we follow them on their roads of self-realization during the Civil War, as their father is away fighting and they grow up in a patriarchless house.

They’re girls who enjoy each other’s company above all else. They perform plays that Jo writes and directs and they tease oldest sister Meg (Watson) about love interests. Matriarch Marmee (Dern) teaches them how to make a positive difference in the world, and lift up those who need it. We watch exemplary, domestic bliss in the world of March where they’re loved and respected. Outside, however, they’ll find themselves marginalized and compromised. 

Gerwig modernizes. A fresh twist on the narrative is cutting it up in the edit, jumping back and forth in time while keeping the story’s tension intact. With every cut, characters go from soaring to dejected. Vibrant sororal companionship gives way to soulgutting bedside vigils. Promise slips under resignation’s heel. There’s an unexpected power to having what’s now a former life so fresh in one’s memory as one grapples with present realities. 

Equally potent is Gerwig’s emphasis on the sensuality and emotional experience of her characters. Jo, living in New York trying to make it as a writer, sells a story. She barrels down the street in unrestrained giddiness, slaloming pedestrians, and all of this Gerwig shoots in slow-motion to fully bask in the emotion of it all. Jo later goes dancing, and again Gerwig slows things down only to excite the twirling and laughing with quick cuts as Jo loses herself in something akin to liberation and the heady satisfaction of independence. Gerwig never loses sight that whatever symbolic importance the viewer might attach to these victories, they’re experiences that are personal and intensely felt. 

Little Women is blessed with a great cast, blessed with great nature to shoot in, and great source material. It may sound like greatness achieves itself here, but it can also be a tall order to make all this more than the sum of its parts. But pastoral New England hasn’t looked better, Ronan and Pugh in particular shine in their roles, and Gerwig, above all, steps up a rung as a director who can helm something of this magnitude and land it safely. 

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