Film & TV

‘Little Women’ Achieves Optimism Without Sacrificing Realism

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An exuberant, heartfelt adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s iconic novel, writer and director Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” is an ideal sophomore effort for the fast-rising filmmaker. The film represents an escalation in scope and technical achievement for Gerwig, while maintaining the singular intimacy and authenticity of Gerwig’s directorial debut “Lady Bird.”

Gerwig’s adaptation, released on Christmas, is the eighth film adapted from Alcott’s text. By adopting a non-linear narrative style and a more modern perspective, Gerwig encourages newcomers and die-hard Alcott fans alike to experience the material in a unique way.

Primarily following the March sisters as they come of age during and after the American Civil War, “Little Women” is deceptively mundane at a glance — most of the plot involves social gatherings, familial complications and romance. Despite this, Gerwig’s film still captures the quiet rebellion of Alcott’s text. 

Whether it’s young Amy (Florence Pugh) begging to join Meg (Emma Watson) and Jo (Saoirse Ronan) on their theater trip or Beth (Eliza Scanlen) sneaking to the neighbor’s house to play the piano in solitude, the film’s small moments are as enthralling as its weddings, funerals and teary, half-yelled fights.

Ronan’s (“Lady Bird,” “Brooklyn”) Jo March serves as the story’s de facto protagonist. A prolific writer and loyal ally to her family and friends, Jo’s quick temper and aversion to romance should pose a challenge to the customs of Civil War-era America, but instead endear Jo to the people around her.

Accompanied by an impeccable collection of performances from Watson (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Bling Ring”), Pugh (“Midsommar,” “Fighting with My Family”) and Scanlen (“Sharp Objects,” “Babyteeth”) as Meg, Amy and Beth March respectively, Ronan’s performance as Jo is fully realized from the film’s first scene.

“Little Women” succeeds at capturing the spirit of a big family. Sisterly goofiness, chaotic and deafening dinner-table conversations, chippy bickering, quiet boredom — Gerwig knows it all and translates it to the screen in remarkable fashion. 

Alcott’s book was published in two parts in 1868 and 1869, but the novel’s accepting and nuanced approach to gender and family politics remain prescient. 

Beth’s piano-playing, Jo’s writing and Amy’s painting show the March sisters have interests and ambitions outside of domesticity, but even Meg’s focus on marrying and raising children is validated by the film and supported by the Marches.

Financial security is another prescient topic the film approaches intelligently, even using Jo’s best friend and courter Laurie Laurence (Timothée Chalamet) and his family to highlight the staggering gap between the country’s richest and poorest.

While in another film the Laurence family’s wealth and power might become oppressive, “Little Women” instead highlights the benevolent potential wealth offers, giving the Marches a kind of support network.

Even with the Laurence’s on their side, the Marches need money. Jo writes scandalous material because it sells better, and her family relies on her income. At one point she admonishes a critic for questioning her writing’s authenticity, exclaiming she “can’t afford to starve on praise.”

Even Amy and Meg, the two sisters most focused on marriage and conformity, are fully aware of marriage’s monetary function in a patriarchal society. While love still factors into their marital aspirations, the absence of their father (Bob Odenkirk), who’s off fighting for the Union through most of the film’s runtime, has put remarkable strain on the family’s income. 

Still, even when faced with illness and financial troubles, the Marches remain giving and optimistic. In their unrelenting kindness, generosity and sincerity, the Marches are an overwhelming symbol of hope and positivity.

Gerwig’s adaptation of “Little Women” is a phenomenal effort, a film that confronts life’s way of building people up and tearing them down, then chooses to revel in the small triumphs instead of the defeats.

“Little Women,” rated PG, is now playing in theaters nationwide.

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