*The following review contains spoilers to Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film, “Little Women.”
Women have stories that deserve to be told, and Greta Gerwig provides the perfect space to do so in her new film “Little Women,” based on the 150-year-old novel of the same name. Although Gerwig does not tell her own tale in “Little Women,” as she did in her 2018 solo directorial debut “Lady Bird,” her spectacular sophomore feature is equally as important in an era when female-driven narratives are overlooked at awards ceremonies and people are threatening the ownership of women’s works.
The 19th-century novel by Louisa May Alcott and its film adaptation center around the March sisters: Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh). Because of their differing personalities, these rambunctious sisters often bicker with each other and only overcome their arguments with their sisterly love. The film chronicles their lives over the course of a year while splicing it with scenes of where the four have wound up three years later, for better or worse.
Two conflicting themes lie at the core of the film: ambition and economics. Every sister wants something, whether it be Jo’s fervent wish to be a writer or Amy’s aspiration to be a painter who is “great or nothing,” and every sister must grapple with the inferior economic circumstances their gender inherently lends them. As Amy explains to her family’s neighbor and friend, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), in a sobering monologue, the destinies of women are invariably tied to their marriages. It is a disheartening paradigm to illustrate, that of the irrepressible desire of women pushing against patriarchal pressures, but Gerwig does so with grace and honesty. Indeed, the bittersweet coming-of-age journeys of these women become synonymous with compromising their dreams.
While the themes that are central to this film may be heavy, they do not detract from how incredibly alive the movie is. The film is imbued with vitality, energy and spirit. It lacks all the stuffiness and rigidity commonly associated with period pieces. This can be attributed to Gerwig’s use of overlapping dialogue, which highlights an exuberant, authentic family dynamic; Alexandre Desplat’s light and whimsical score; and Yorick Le Saux’s kinetic camerawork.
Above all, the ensemble cast of “Little Women” is key to its success. It is nearly impossible to decide which actors are the standouts of the film; everyone is perfectly cast and perfectly fulfills the demands of their roles. Pugh, for instance, embodies the petulance needed for her role as the youngest of the family, and Chalamet’s depiction of Laurie expertly blends the earnestness of his “Call Me By Your Name” character, Elio, with the selfishness of his “Lady Bird” character, Kyle. However, if there is one performance that is central to the film, it is that of Ronan, who, in Jo, portrays the unbridled desire that defines and drives the film forward.
Gerwig’s decision to cut between the different time periods of the novel rather than moving through its events chronologically is ingeniously achieved. Each scene is positioned to maximize its meaning and emotional impact. For instance, Meg begs Laurie in one scene at a party, “Let me have my fun tonight. I’ll be desperately good for the rest of my life.” This is immediately followed by a scene where a married Meg struggles with her husband, tutor John Brooke (James Norton), over their finances. Time jumps are oftentimes connected visually as well, through graphic matches where one shot with nearly the exact same framing and composition as the last ushers viewers into a different time period. Additionally, early scenes utilize bright colors and are often shot in candlelight, casting the shots with a warmth that stands in contrast to the neutral colors and stark lighting of later scenes, perhaps signaling the disconnect between childhood and fantasy with adulthood and reality.
Nowhere in the film is this intercutting put to better use than in its conclusion. As occurs in the novel, Jo, despite insisting she will remain unmarried her whole life, is positioned by the plot to marry Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel). It seems abrupt and out of character, but this transition is deftly addressed in the film. As Jo’s entire family insists to her that she is, in fact, in love with Professor Bhaer, the film jumps in time to a negotiation between Jo and her editor over her book, “Little Women.” The editor rejects the idea of a certain female character in the novel remaining single, proclaiming that “the right ending is the one that sells.” Jo relents. The film returns to Jo’s family, and she chases Professor Bhaer out in the rain, where they kiss. In the context of the previous scene, this no longer feels romantic, but comedic, with the pouring rain and swelling music almost serving as a parody of such tacked-on endings. This meta-commentary by Gerwig, contextualizing Alcott’s decision to marry off Jo, is the perfect way to translate the source material into something understandable for modern audiences.
From the very first shot of the film, it is clear that Jo’s writing occupies a major role in the movie, as it depicts her standing in front of her editor’s office, pages in hand. Jo continues writing throughout the film, despite those who criticize her work or force her to make it palatable to wider audiences. She does so not only to pursue her art but also to survive. It is clear that she is determined to be a real writer, to have a voice in print for the world to hear and remember. Although Alcott’s novel doesn’t emphasize Jo’s writing of “Little Women” as much, the film ends as Jo signs her name to her work, refuses to give up the copyright to her book and watches with a smile as her books are produced and displayed, and her dream becomes realized. For a film that shows women forced to come to terms with the difficulties of achieving their dreams, Gerwig makes the momentous decision to end the movie with a triumph, and not a romantic one. In the end, the true love affair in “Little Women” is that of a woman with her words.