Miraculously, Little Women somehow succeeds on two fronts: Strip away the prior history associated with Louisa May Alcott’s magnum opus, and this is still a great film. Now, toss in the umpteen screen and stage adaptations, the generations of students who’ve pored over the novel, and this movie stands even taller–perhaps the definitive work on the subject. Ebullient, moving, and exquisitely crafted, writer-director Greta Gerwig delivers the best and brightest Little Women we’ll ever need.
If you’re a fan of classic theater, cinema, or literature, it’s difficult to imagine that you haven’t bumped into this story before. The narrative centers on the four March sisters: Headstrong Jo (Saoirse Ronan) serves as the family’s brightest light. Grounded and pragmatic, Meg (Emma Watson) provides an emotional anchor. Amy (Florence Pugh) is the youngest and most impetuous of the group. Sweet, shy Beth (Eliza Scanlen) cedes much of the spotlight to her sisters, even as a deadly illness creeps over her.
We see the world through the eyes of the March girls, and meet the various characters who fall into their orbit: Marmee (Laura Dern) is the matriarch who attempts to imbue her girls with temperance and wisdom. Aunt March (Meryl Streep) is rich and bitchy. She peppers her snarky commentary with the undeniable truth. Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) is the good-natured neighbor boy who falls deeply for Jo, but attracts Amy instead. Meanwhile, Laurie’s wealthy grandfather (Chris Cooper) looks at bashful Beth like the daughter he lost long ago.
Gerwig brilliantly uses three distinct color palates to further the narrative flow of her story. For flashback scenes, the March house comes alive with the honey hues of spring. Sunlight cuts a swath through every room, creating a sense of warmth and happiness. Years later, the girls split up, and Gerwig cools everything down with the silvery blues of winter. When the timelines start to bridge, we see autumnal colors of orange, red, and brown. TL;DR: This film is so visually stunning, you could probably enjoy it without sound.
Of course, the only problem with that is you’d miss out on the performances. Ronan’s phenomenal turn as Jo March supplies the movie with its spiritual center. Watson gives Meg a quiet resolve to counterbalance Jo’s mercurial brilliance. After the unapologetic weirdness of Midsommar, Pugh gets a great chance to showcase her range, as the bratty sister who must grow up the fastest. Scanlen effectively conveys the open decency and vulnerability of Beth, the best of all the sisters. Everyone else turns in exactly the professional work you’d expect from a squad of Oscar, Emmy, and Tony winners. As the saying goes, their characters exist “to swell the progress of a scene or two,” and they do just fine at that.
It might seem like the world didn’t need another Little Women. Alcott’s book has been everywhere for 150 years. Six movie adaptations have graced the screen before this one. Hundreds of theater stages have seen thousands of Jo Marches and Lauries. Turns out, this is the version we’ve all been waiting for. Gerwig’s version isn’t audacious or revolutionary. It doesn’t need to be. This Little Women is meticulous, intelligent, and unabashedly beautiful. With this version, we get the vibrance and immediacy of a good book, along with the unique visual poetry of a great movie. This is one of the best films of the year.
135 min. PG.
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