“Make sure she’s married by the end.” Thus instructs a cynical publisher to aspiring writer Jo March (Ronan), because how else could a story about a woman possibly end, goes his argument. That might have been the case in 1868 when Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women was first published, but even then Alcott was subtly pushing against the patriarchy with her modern, defiant Jo, a character the author modeled on herself. (For her part, Alcott hung tough and stayed single to the very end.)
Starting at the finish is never a great idea for a film review (erm, spoilers ahead), but the film itself begins somewhere in the middle. Here’s a strange observation to make about a story 140-some years old and roundly cherished: If you don’t know Little Women, you might get a little lost with writer/director Greta Gerwig’s plotting. Instead of relating in a linear fashion the tale of the four March girls of Concord, Mass. – pretty and practical Meg (Watson), headstrong Jo, saintly Beth (Scanlen), and brattish baby of the family Amy (Pugh) – Gerwig opens the action in New York, where Jo has gone to become a writer, and then rewinds to different chapters. In a way, this mimics the way readers remember the book in vignettes: This is where Jo sells her hair; this is where Beth visits the Hummels. More importantly, Gerwig uses the time jumps to explicitly frame the film from a feminist perspective: not just in terms of the story, which emphasizes Jo’s negotiations for fair pay and copyright of her work, but in terms of time management. Gerwig and editor Nick Houy cut the climax and denouement into concurrent narrative threads – a declaration of love and the resolution of a book project – and shuttle between the two timelines. I get the message – marriage will not be the brass ring here – and I applaud it; I just wish the pace didn’t feel so pokey.
The pokey conclusion is in contrast to what is otherwise a lively adaptation. A modern one, too, especially in its physicality: Shoulder shrugs, head cocks, and eye rolls are all part of the arsenal of these Civil War-era teens, and the March girls are forever in a state of pummeling each other. If that sounds like sacrilege to you, fine – there are dozens more versions of Little Women, onscreen and on the page, to choose from. I liked this one’s sense of play, and also how generous Gerwig is with her spotlight: how Jo’s grief at a loss shifts to subordinate when she takes in the even greater grief of her mother, Marmee (Dern); or how Meg’s mortification at having a lock of hair accidentally burned off by Jo’s careless curling iron – a moment so very familiar to Little Women fans – becomes startling and new again when Pugh’s Amy unleashes a sociopath’s laugh.
Out of a terrific ensemble cast, Pugh (Midsommar, TV’s The Little Drummer Girl) emerges as the star. Bucking most adaptations’ tendency to cast two actresses to play Amy at different ages, Pugh embodies young Amy with high spirits and an enunciation like she’s got a mouthful of rocks; in her late teens, off to Europe to secure a husband, she’s still spirited, but steelier. In the other standout performance, Timothée Chalamet – one of the internet’s sighing obsessions – refuses the easy path of playing boy-next-door Laurie like a heartthrob. Instead, his Laurie is devoted but immature, a dandy in slightly overlarge suits, an orphan looking longingly at the chaotic, battering affection the March girls feel for each other. Gerwig repeatedly catches Laurie in this state – an observer of these extraordinary, ordinary girls – and he’s a fine proxy for those of us who’ve been living with the March family for so long. They feel like home. And in Gerwig’s admirable adaptation, even with some tinkering, they still do.
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