I read Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” at age 11. It was a girl’s book, but me and my little half-jock, half-bookworm, grade-school buddies were surreptitiously captivated. Why? Because we knew a bunch of these all-sister families.
Behold—the very wonderful Van Houten sisters: Johanna, Renate, Barbara, Bridget, Thea, and Francis (not their real last name, all last names here listed are fictitious, to shield the innocent!); the magical McGarrigle sisters: Larissa, Bridghe, Helena, and Rosemary; the five lovely Leavitt sisters up on Dennis Court; not to mention the rare Renberg sisters: Sandy and Suki.
The thing was, these girls were, all of them, beauties—like a fairy tale, each one fairer than the next. If you set foot in their homes, it was like getting hit with an infatuation bomb. Develop a crush? Not even close—one got instantaneously crushed with megatons of smitten-ness. No boy could handle the thought of them.
Because it wasn’t only the beauty and the popularity. It was the thoroughly besotting, next-level estrogen coziness; the lying around in front of the TV in hair-stroking kitten heaps, the high-energy frenzy of giggling and squealing; the snarking; the sharp stabs of occasional terrifying meanness; the dolls; the hair-brushing and twirling and flinging and braiding and washing with Herbal Essence shampoo; the cheerleading; the starring in school plays; the adorable fuzzy socks, the ballet shoes, the lacrosse sticks; the long lashes…
Director Greta Gerwig brings a massive wallop of childhood nostalgia for the all-girl families. Is it any wonder that this is the sixth film adaptation of this story? I think not. I submit that all-American, all-girl families hold a special place in the Americana memories of all Americans. Especially the memories of boys.
Greta Gerwig’s sophomore project, after “Lady Bird,” works on two levels: not only as a retelling of “Little Women” but also as a biopic about Alcott. Eldest sister and novelist Jo March was based on Alcott herself. Since the book’s a classic and there have been those previous five movie-tellings, most Americans know the story:
It’s about Marmee (a fabulous Laura Dern) and her vivacious, artsy daughters, Jo (Saoirse Ronan), the March family’s impetuous, resident would-be novelist; Beth (Eliza Scanlen), the talented musician; Meg (Emma Watson), the family’s actress; and the youngest, Amy (Florence Pugh) the painter.
They all live life at a highly sanguine, breakneck (but ridiculously cozy) pace in one of those classic, all-brown New England houses in Concord, Massachusetts. Their dad (Bob Odenkirk) is off serving as a chaplain in the Civil War.
They’re in the midst of learning to deal with life without father when a different sort of male figure enters their lives; that would be the fetching young lad Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Chalamet), who moves in across the way with his wealthy granddad (Chris Cooper).
The girls (and boy) play (as they were wont to in the time of no phones) with great verve, staging plays, writing stories, playing the piano with virtuosity, and skating on ponds. They attend debutante balls, have the occasional explosive catfight wherein one or the other’s precious works might get vindictively torched, have sob-fests overseen by mom, and forgive each other with extensive hugging.
Mega-snobbish Aunt March (Meryl Streep), a frilly-black-clad, bitter spinster if there ever was one, lords her wealth over their collective heads with a barrage of sniffing, eye-rolling, and generally disparaging remarks. Her criticism, however, is due to her constant worrying that her female relatives have no one to look after them. It was, after all, a time when women generally could not provide for themselves.
Gerwig’s “Little Women” has two time frames: the teen years and 10 years into the future when Jo’s moved to New York City to attempt a writing career. Jo takes a couple of trips back home to help deal with family illness.
This time-period split allows director-writer Gerwig to show how the March family history is Jo’s source of writing material. It also manages to retain the book’s classic atmosphere, while at the same time (due to busting up the linear narrative) allowing for a fabulously engaging modern (including fairly modern language) interpretation. It’s safe to say, this story has never been told with this degree of vibrancy, passion, and conviction. Gerwig makes “Little Women” a tribute to women.
Why We Like This Movie Today
Of course, it’s the modern retelling that makes this classic work: passionate women fighting for what they feel should be theirs. This is largely a feminist retelling, after all. Consider only one indication: Amy’s speech concerning marriage wasn’t in the original script. Meryl Streep apparently insisted there be a moment that afforded modern audiences insight into the general powerlessness of women at the time; they couldn’t work or vote, and marriage laws were such that they stood to lose ownership of their money, property, and children.
All of the above is true, and the very concept of helpless women grates on and jangles our modern nerves and sensibilities. But why?
Consider that feminism is, at heart, based on envy: You have more than I have; that’s not fair. Boys get to play with bats and balls; boys get to climb trees and get dirty; men’s ambitions are taken seriously when they draw, write, or achieve their artistic promise. It’s not fair. This feeling that life’s unfairness needs to be remedied is basically the dynamic at the heart of communist philosophy.
Today, it’s hard to stomach that life is not fair. Yet the more we twist and legislate to make it so, the more mess we create. And, ironically, instead of celebrating our differences, which is supposedly at the bottom of progressive thinking, meting out fairness aims to obliterate differences. Do we want a world of only men-like creatures?
And, if all these seemingly evermore progressive updates and legal tweaks to eliminate unfairness have actually brought about a true evolution of the human spirit—why do we find ourselves in the middle of Armageddon, with the planet on the brink of cardiac arrest?
So … no matter how much this movie satisfies scratching that itch for fairness, its ideology ultimately turns us into people who live to fight. The sister dynamics—considerably heightened in this movie—make this point.
Saoirse Ronan’s Jo could almost be a standalone story, but Gerwig caught lightning in a bottle by casting Florence Pugh as Amy; together these two elevate the book’s classic sibling rivalry to high art. A baser comparison might be that Pugh’s Amy plays Daffy Duck to Jo’s Bug Bunny, but this sister duo radiates a palpable heat; they both share a boiling desire for a fulfilling, artistic life.
In one of the film’s subtler but ultimately elucidating scenes, Aunt March explains to Amy exactly why Amy must marry well, in order to inherit her fortune. This lays the groundwork for us to appreciate Amy’s courage to follow her heart, and not some suitor’s bank account.
It must also be said that Pugh’s Amy pines for Timothée Chalamet’s Laurie in ways that will be profoundly appreciated by legions of smitten Chalamet fan-girls. Pugh better win best supporting actress.
Emma Watson’s Meg and Eliza Scanlen’s Beth bolster the Jo-Amy duality with nuanced, supporting work, and Chalamet as neighbor Laurie encircles each March sister as a sort of wreath. As friend, as crush, he functions as a kind of pedestal to showcase each sister’s individuality.
This “Little Women” is a slam-dunk for Academy Award nominations. Due to Gerwig’s fabulous retelling of the March girls’ tale, it unpacked many childhood memories. I’d forgotten how much fun the Van Houten, McGarrigle, and Renberg girls were. We didn’t know the gorgeous Leavitt sisters; they went to a different school—lived behind a high fence (smart dad). So we boys would climb Mike Finser’s apple tree to have a look at the lovely Leavitt lasses lying around their pool in the summertime. Girls may be little women, but boys will be boys.
Director: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Chris Cooper, Eliza Scanlen
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 25
Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5