Movie Review: “Little Women” (2019)

There is a beautiful, incredible, level of truth which bursts forth from Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” It is there in every in every frame, in every line, in every face. This is not to say that everything in the movie is true, or true to the moment. There are, undoubtedly, anachronisms. Still, “Little Woman” is a triumphant joy, and no small part of that is due to the complete and utter truth of it all.

Because that truth exists, it is incumbent upon me to state before this review gets any further that I have never read the novel upon which the movie is based. I think I’ve probably seen some version of the film at some point, but I couldn’t tell you which or when. Prior to seeing Gerwig’s take, I couldn’t have told you more about the story than what I learned from Joey on “Friends.”

I went into the movie then knowing it was the tale of four sisters, knowing it was about their growing up and that things wouldn’t end well for all of them. I had a vague idea of some of the personality traits of each of these little women—Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen)—but not much more than that.

Therefore, do not expect this review to discuss how Gerwig adjusted the original text; what elements she played up or played down. I cannot say much about how Marmee (Laura Dern) or Father (Bob Odenkirk) March are altered and nothing whatsoever about Aunt March (Meryl Streep) or Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). I can, and will, only speak to that which is on the screen, or implied by what’s on the screen. And I reiterate, the best answer to that is: truth.

Through moments both sad and happy, “Little Women” offers up to its audience a view of the world through the eyes of Jo and her sisters. It is a discussion, both moral and ethical, about growing up (especially growing up as a woman) and what that means. It is about about being family, and fighting and loving through it. It is about finding a calling and how different people—even ones from the same family and with the same background—may want different things and how that’s okay. It is about how the choices we make have consequences and we need to be aware of that as we move forward. And, told from the perspective of these women, it feels true to life. It is an all-encompassing view of of that moment in the 19th century which is still applicable to life in the 21st. It will make you smile and cry and cheer.

Gerwig leans more towards the happy than the sad here, and has structured the film to accentuate the positive. “Little Women” alternates between two time periods – one with the women as teens, and one with them slightly older. As the film progresses through its narrative, the earlier time period butts into the latter, closing the whole like a zipper. While it may sometimes be all too easy to forget what scene is taking place when, the overall effect of this back-and-forth is that the audience is clued into upcoming joys and sadnesses, and while it doesn’t diminish the former to know what’s coming, some of the heartbreak of the latter is alleviated. It isn’t gone, but it is lessened and therefore helps skew the movie towards brighter feelings.

Although Pugh, Dern, Watson, Scanlen, Chalamet, Odenkirk, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, and everyone else does a wonderful job in the movie, it is Ronan who is the standout. Ronan and Gerwig previously collaborated on 2017’s “Lady Bird” to great effect, and here they have (again) created something for the ages. Ronan’s Jo, undoubtedly the center of the film even if others get their turn in the spotlight, is a whirling dervish of life. She is perfect through her imperfections, through her single-minded dedication towards her goals and belief that everyone ought to want and think as she does. Watching her eyes open through the movie, seeing her grow, is nothing short of spectacular. Ronan doesn’t merely pull the audience in to Jo, she makes us all believe that we are Jo, with the same hopes and dreams and faults. Ronan took home accolades for her performance in “Lady Bird” and if there is a higher honor she deserves it here.

I have not yet touched upon the costumes and sets and music and all the other elements that go into making a motion picture succeed, but be assured, that Gerwig’s team excels across all of these aspects. The music, by Alexandre Desplat, is particularly wonderful and, like the design of the narrative, skews itself (and the audience) towards somewhat happier feelings.

“Little Women” is a film which you will want to watch again as soon as you’ve finished your last viewing. It will put a smile on your face and a tear on your cheek. The words “triumphant joy” don’t feel quite strong enough, but it is the best I have.

four and a half stars

photo credit: Sony Pictures

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