I will confess to having been more than a little cynical about a modern re-telling of the beloved Louisa May Alcott classic Little Women, and while this faith-inspired effort directed by first-time helmer Clare Niederpruem may not, okay will not, please Alcott purists it's a faithful retelling and spirited reimagining of a familiar story that seems to be one of those stories woven into the fabric of American culture.
With a traditional take on the classic material set to arrive in theaters during the 2019 holiday season courtesy of director Greta Gerwig and her all-star cast that includes Meryl Streep, Saiorse Ronan, Timothee Chalamet, Emma Watson and others, it's more than a little fair to call this modern retelling a watered down, almost Hallmark Channel worthy version that glosses over Alcott's social issues and more feminist leanings in favor of a more saccharine celebration of family, chasing dreams, and something resembling sisterhood.
The March sisters are here - Meg (Melanie Stone), Jo (Sarah Davenport), Beth (Allie Jennings), and Amy (Elise Jones/Taylor Murphy) - though, as you might expect if you're at all familiar with these characters placing them in modern times rather than the 1860's takes an awful lot of bite out of the characters and their journeys. Jo, essentially Alcott's focal point in telling the story, moves from being a bold and visionary feminist into being not much more than an entitled millennial whose ego far exceeds her actual talent. Sarah Davenport is perfectly fine given what she's asked to do, though she's certainly no Katharine Hepburn. The only truly familiar name in the cast is Back to the Future's Lea Thompson as Marmee, the family's matriarch and it's no particular surprise that she gives the film its brightest spark.
While it may sound like I'm bashing the film, the truth is that I rather enjoyed Little Women for what it is - a faith-inspired retelling of an American classic that aims for the family friendly market, and trust me the PG-13 rating is definitely a light PG-13 rating, and should have little if any problem pleasing its target audience. Little Women may be fluff, but for the most part it's enjoyable fluff with an ensemble cast that is enthusiastic and spirited.
First-time director Niederpruem, a veteran of indie and faith-based cinema, has a light but promising touch here as a director. It's clear she enthusiastically embraces the source material, yet she also is wisely in tune with what's going to appeal to the film's faith-based audiences. While the film is opening nationwide in theaters with faith-based distributor Pure Flix Entertainment, rest assured that genuine crossover appeal is limited with families and people of faith being the film's most likely audiences.
The film opens with Davenport's Jo living in Queens, New York, a 29-year-old wannabe writer whose only real audience to date is a Columbia professor named Freddy (Ian Bohen), whose wisdom will eventually lead her toward writing more personal stories. The film utilizes flashbacks, mostly to good effect, serving up the early journeys of the March sisters often alongside their transition into empowered young women. While I may have struggled with Jo's transition into modern times, there was no struggle at all with Davenport's vibrant and inspired performance.
There is much love and laughter and loss to be found even in this contemporary telling of a 150-year-old story, the sisters March believably committed to one another even as each one embarks on a different journey. Meg, played with sincere delight by Melanie Stone, longs for marriage and a family while Amy, played dually by Elise Jones and Taylor Murphy, aspires to be an artist and travel the world. In the film's strongest performance outside that of Thompson, Allie Jennings will win your heart as the heart-centered core of the sisters, Beth.
Little Women is a quiet little gem of a film, neither the best version of Little Women you will have ever seen nor is it a film you should wait to see on home video. The film's vibrancy comes to life on the big screen and it's also an ideal way to support the up-and-coming Niederpruem and the continuing cinematic presence of films such as this one.
However, purists be cautioned that while this Little Women is a relentless celebration of sisterhood and family it's definitely a strange new world to see Alcott's story come to life in the age of cell phones and texting. For those seeking an entertaining couple of hours with the family with nary an offensive scene to be found, Little Women will entertain you and likely have you calling up your sisters on the way out of the theater.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic