Movie Review | Little Women
By Simon Sweeney
The Quick Take: Greta Gerwig’s sophomore effort is a work of purest joy, outshining not only Lady Bird but nearly every other film this year and cementing her as one of the most exciting filmmakers out there. See it if you can, and try to even if you don’t think you can.
Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s 2017 directorial debut and first collaboration with Little Women stars Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, and Tracy Letts, is a majestic entry in the coming-of-age canon, full of spirit and verve and heart, made with care and a profound sense of where the beautiful lies in a life. Little Women, her brand-new follow-up, is all of that and more, adapting Louisa May Alcott’s novel with a perfect top-to-bottom cast headed by Ronan, Chalamet, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, and newcomer Eliza Scanlen and creating a glorious exemplar for bringing classic works into the twenty-first century.
Though almost every aspect of the film works, its heart beats with its cast and Gerwig’s direction thereof. Ronan, who received an Academy Award nomination for Lady Bird, outdoes herself as Jo, the big-dreaming writer of the March sisters. Florence Pugh, whose reportedly stellar turn in Ari Aster’s Midsommar earlier this year I have unfortunately been unable to see for myself yet, is absolutely magical here, giving a complex performance as Amy, the youngest March sister, at both 13 and 20 years of age (Pugh was 22 when filming); her scenes opposite Chalamet in the latter time period are of the stuff that makes stars, while her unabashed brattiness as the teenaged version of Amy provides the largest laughs of the film.
These two timelines, seven years apart and intercut without on-screen clarification, have been occasionally said to cause confusion, but anyone paying attention really shouldn’t have an issue. The actors (especially Pugh), Gerwig, and editor Nick Houy perfectly set up and knock down dominoes in two timelines at once, the parallelling stories lending a new emotional shine to both the lightest and heaviest moments in Alcott’s text.
All this to foster a stunning portrayal of emotions across the spectrum at Gerwig’s perfectly executed whims; Little Women comes out as a work that is absolutely bursting with feeling, be it joy, grief, love, regret, or anything outside of or in between. Aside from the two standout performances at the top, Watson, Scanlen, and Chalamet fill out the principal cast admirably (Ronan and Watson’s American accents occasionally slip a bit, but it’s entirely forgivable considering how top-notch their actual acting is). Scanlen is brand new to the film scene and performs admirably as the ailing Beth; Watson, for the first time, really sheds her Harry Potter baggage (behind Daniel Radcliffe, far ahead of Rupert Grint) to play a very real, bittersweetly realized Meg, the eldest March sister; Chalamet is charming enough to finally turn me to his side after leaving me cold in what I’d seen of him before (he’s good enough in Lady Bird; I can not possibly recommend Netflix’s The King).
It is further to the film’s credit that I can not stop praising the cast after the leads: Laura Dern (in what may not be a widely-shared opinion) is even better here than in Noah Baumbach’s awards-season juggernaut Marriage Story; Chris Cooper is wonderfully restrained playing way out of type as a perfectly sweet Mr. Laurence, grandfather to Chalamet’s Laurie; Meryl Streep goes mean as Aunt March, working alongside Pugh as the film’s primary deliverer of comic relief; by the time Bob Odenkirk shows up, two-thirds of the way in, it’s not even a surprise to see him put on a delightfully subtle show. Gerwig is truly pulling the best from everybody.
Little Women brings Alcott’s novel into a time that dearly needs emotion delivered without irony, a way to express without couching in a hidden joke; Gerwig and her cast and crew have realized this adaptation gleefully and stunningly, poking and prodding the material from time to time while still staying true to both the original text and the zeitgeist of 2019. It is a beautiful work, and one that is an essential experience for anyone feeling downtrodden or forgotten by the world and our time.