Review: ‘Little Women’ (the Gerwig adaptation)

Dragging subtext out onto center stage and making it sing.

A talented but struggling writer reluctant to use her own name to distinguish herself, Josephine “Jo” March (Saoirse Ronan) manages to sell some of her work to a New York publisher, sending the money home to Massachusetts whenever she can to offset her family’s “genteel poverty.” Jo often recalls growing up in the 1860s with her sisters — Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) — and their neighbor’s son Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), reminders of simpler times together. When circumstances demand her return home to her mother Marmee (Laura Dern), Jo fears she’ll have to give up her dreams and settle for the secondary societal roles her Aunt March (Meryl Streep) champions as acceptable and proper for a lady of her circumstance.

People often confuse Louisa May Alcott’s work for Jane Austen fare, but the semi-autobiographical Little Women series was distinctly about post-Civil War American ladies coming of age. Originally published in two volumes, this version of the story combines both parts in a non-linear way to add additional weight through parallel scenes, something director Greta Gerwig reportedly strived for in adapting the screenplay for modern viewers. With an all-star cast of established faces and up-and-comers, can the Lady Bird director put a fresh spin on material with a dozen adaptations already?

With the casting of Hannah’s Ronan as force-of-nature Jo, director Gerwig sought someone to match Ronan’s energy on-screen, halting production long enough to win Midsommar’s Florence Pugh for the role of Amy; good choice. As the core characters of the story mentored with pedigree actors Dern and Streep, the near story-within-a-story works in spite of the material trying to resist it. Running the full gambit of emotions while celebrating young women dealing with life, circumstance, and personal decisions from their own point of view, Gerwig’s new adaptation may be the best version of Alcott’s novels as the most relatable take.

With a three-year difference between Alcott’s original novels, a linear timeline lacked the impact Gerwig was reportedly trying to achieve. At one key point, the film becomes difficult to follow, intentionally mirroring the same place at different times from what Jo remembers and then witnesses; this is mostly fixed when a key character cuts their hair, but the visual cue is a welcome crutch due to how quickly the scenes cut back and forth. Set after the American Civil War with their father (Bob Odenkirk) away doing volunteer work as a pastor with the Union Army, it’s a slice of Americana unique to its time, but the rework brings the timely struggle of being an ambitious intelligent woman to the forefront and compellingly challenges it.

In addition to the actors mentioned, keep a close eye on Timothée Chalamet — cast as Paul Atreides in Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Dune remake opposite Doctor Sleep’s Rebecca Ferguson — for his portrayal of Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence. His character’s relationship with all the March sisters is integral to what makes this family-friendly family drama feel warm and close, like real people viewers might know and want to succeed: the family you choose. As Jo learns from each step taken to reach for her dreams, negotiation is everything when refusing to give up.

Little Women is rated PG for thematic elements, brief smoking, and never wanting things to change that always do.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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