One of the biggest pieces of lore that goes almost hand-in-hand with reading Little Women is that author Louisa May Alcott did not want her protagonist, Jo, to get married. Fans and editors alike demanded Jo to hook up with someone (preferably her best friend, Laurie) and Alcott grudgingly wrote it in. Released in volumes, the classic 1868 novel is a loose retelling of her own childhood, and it’s a tale that still resonates today. Readers in 2019 remain deeply devoted to Alcott’s world, to the point where fiery debates about characters, romance, and the author’s intent continue to be ignited.
Greta Gerwig’s sophomore feature is a beautiful rendition of Alcott’s story, one that gently acknowledges the context that Little Women has lived in for years. Following the four lively March sisters — Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scalen), and Amy (Florence Pugh) — who live with their mother (Laura Dern), as their father fights in the war, the film jumps between their differing points of view as the girls grow, struggle, and change. They are in financial distress, but with some excellent production design from Jess Gonchor that creates a bustling atmosphere, the March home is almost dreamlike in its support.
Little Women switches back and forth in its timeline, piecing together its story in a non-linear fashion. Since most adaptations tend to follow the girls as they grow older, this choice is its most defining and masterful feature. Gerwig’s script performs a careful balancing act, allowing the audience to understand the girls and their choices as adults with more nuance. The chemistry among the cast, along with its cozy setting, radiates enough warmth that it feels like Gerwig’s film is holding our face in its hands — telling us that it’s okay to want superficial things, to be afraid of growing up, to chase our dreams, and to be loved.
Jo is our main focus, an aspiring writer who, after pulling all-nighters, doles out plays and stories for her family like hotcakes; her talent is apparent. She is a classic 1800s tomboy, with burns on her skirt and little interest in parties, which is how she charms their rich neighbor’s lonely grandson, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). Jo and Laurie’s lives and families ultimately become entangled as they grow older.
While Jo is ambitious, Meg and Beth are more practical in their desires: Meg is enchanted by the life of high society, and is drawn to Laurie’s tutor; Beth is shy and charitable, content in playing the piano for her family’s ears only. They do not long for greatness or a Brontë sisters-level status, nor does the film ever judge them for it. Pugh’s Amy, the baby of the family, is captivatingly endearing as she swings from polite lady to absolute brat. She jabs at Jo for being “unladylike,” but also makes molds of her feet for her crush. Amy’s reputation amongst the fan base is famously sour, but the development of her story runs parallel to Jo’s need for freedom — constantly told that she is her family’s ticket out of poverty.
Amy is practically the deuteragonist. The girls are passionate about the same things and share the same values, and they clash because of these similarities. Amy’s childlike needs of the past contrast with her newfound responsibility in the present, allowing her a nuance that is usually not seen in previous adaptations. Her coming-of-age story is romantic and painful — the highlight being a frustrating back-and-forth with Laurie after she surprisingly stands up to him, causing a spark. In fact, this balance of arcs is done so well at the beginning of the movie that it feels like the viewer has lost a vital part of the story when it just focuses on Jo at its end.
“Women, they have minds, and they have souls as well as just hearts, and they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for, I’m so sick of it!”
An echo of Alcott’s palatable exasperation, Jo’s passionate speech exemplifies the fierce love and defensive personality that Ronan brings to the character. An effortlessly charming performer, she shares electric chemistry with her costars, embodying the fiery female heroine that we’ve read so much about. Ronan shines when Jo is at her most vulnerable when she is challenged by those she respects, and it is the latter half of this declaration that hits the hardest — suggesting Gerwig’s own interpretation of the character. Jo buries her face in her hands, and says, brokenly: “But, I’m so lonely.”
Women’s stories on screen can so often be carefully packaged, curated through what company stakeholders believe audiences want to see. Such a baby-grade feminist lens rarely allots their characters any true dimensionality, but Gerwig’s film avoids this completely — giving us a fresh interpretation of this timeless story in a movie that feels needed right now.
Little Women, with its big heart, allows the viewer to enjoy the ride. The way it shapes its story is perfect, jumping between the adult world and a rosy childhood long-ago. Without enacting judgment or giving anyone a free pass, the film offers satisfying arcs for its girls’ varying desires — and then lets them push back.