“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents"...
I sit here in my smallish three-bedroom ranch home in an urban neighborhood of my hometown of Indianapolis acutely aware of just how often I've made cracks about Santa skipping my not quite peaceful, not quite rough neighborhood where I live alone with nary a family member around and with a loving and committed tribe that is, nonetheless, still committed to living other lives to which I simply don't belong.
It's that feeling that always bothers me the most at Christmas, I suppose. It's the feeling that I don't belong to anywhere or anyone.
I've never had a relationship with Louisa May Alcott's beloved "Little Women," though the book has always been on the periphery of my life vision and I have always resonated with it for reasons I've never been able to identify before writer/director Greta Gerwig decided to follow-up her Lady Bird success with a $40 million production of a story that has been often brought to life through cinema, Broadway, anime, and even television musicals.
My father believed "Little Women" to be for girls. As a young man with a serious disability whose masculinity was already in question, this was an opinion with which I chose not to argue despite having always seen something else in the stories of the March sisters and despite, quite honestly, not quite understanding what was so wrong with being "for girls."
I have the feeling that had Gerwig and I been besties when I was younger, she'd have been quick to jump in my father's face and defend Alcott's "Little Women" as much as she'd have defended my masculine honor however I chose to live it out.
Greta Gerwig's Little Women is a film for everyone - men, women, trans, adults, children, folks with disabilities, folks without disabilities, and people across the economic, ethnic, and cultural spectrums.
I want all of y'all to see this film because Gerwig has something for all of y'all in it.
Gerwig's Little Women doesn't just show us these March sisters; it holds them tightly and demands that we evaluate our perceptions of these women and all that they stand for and all that they want. It refuses to let us off easily and it pushes vibrantly against the expectations that we have and that society has for each one's life. Little Women is brimming and simmering with all of the possibilities for these March sisters and it refuses to allow us to confine them. It believes in them perhaps more than any other production of Little Women has ever believed in them whether we're talking about the 1933 adaptation with Katharine Hepburn as Jo or the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Kirsten Dunst, and Susan Sarandon that many consider to be the gold standard for the film.
Gerwig has made some brave and bold artistic choices here, both as a screenwriter and a filmmaker. The story itself has been structured differently, theme emphasized over chronology and past and present differentiated by color grading Yorick Le Saux's lush, already hued cinematography. She also brings Amy more to the forefront, not quite an equal to Jo in terms of story or substance, but far more central to the goings-on and far more visible than other productions have allowed her to be.
There's feminism at work in Little Women that fully lives into the feminism for which the story has always been justifiably credited. It's as if Gerwig more fully grasps the full feminist potential of this story and more vividly brings it to life.
Jo (Saiorse Ronan) and Amy (Florence Pugh) are the sisters more defined as ambitious, their differences obvious and yet their life goals more in conflict with a society that wants to force them into roles for which they don't fit and, perhaps more importantly, for which they have no desire. They are worthy goals, Gerwig is not afraid to say, but they are not Jo and Amy's goals.
Gerwig believes just as passionately in the more domesticated goals of Meg (Emma Watson) and, refreshingly, even in the burgeoning voice of young Beth (Eliza Scanlen), whose identity is just starting to show and whose voice seems almost lost at times amidst her sisters and alongside her mother Marmee (Laura Dern) and the louder than life Aunt March (Meryl Streep).
Gerwig ensures that all four women are fully developed, both in terms of their individual identities and in terms of their conflicting and conflicted roles within society. Jo has always been at the center of the Little Women story, but Gerwig doesn't let us forget about the essential presence and identity of each of the four March women or, for that matter, each of the other vital characters within this film.
Gerwig is also unafraid to challenge our expectations for the film and how everything unfolds, her resolution for the film utterly sublime yet destined to remain for you to see for yourself.
Little Women affirms Gerwig's mastery as a filmmaker and storyteller, her vision for the story and the film so sublime brought to life here that she gives us a version of Little Women we didn't know we needed. While Gerwig takes full advantage of contemporary technological advances, she wisely chooses to maintain the story's focus on the seemingly dated squabbles and disagreements between four sisters who sometimes seem to argue just so they can have something to argue about. Little Women, which first came to life as a two-part novel in 1868-69, brought dignity to just these types of arguments and the seemingly ordinary subject matter that breathes life into these four women. Gerwig understands this importance and this importance is brought masterfully to life by Gerwig's top-notch ensemble cast. She's focused less, at least at times, on casting according to physical type and more on casting toward bringing the essence of each character to life.
In short, everyone cast is sublimely perfect.
Timothée Chalamet is extraordinary as Theodore "Laurie" Laurence, capturing a playfulness and spirit without foregoing the economic and cultural differences that were certainly relevant when the story was written and when it is still set. Ronan, who is far from "homely and awkward," nonetheless captures Jo's rebellious spirit and head-butting obstinance and is utterly a joy to watch in the film's book-ending scenes opposite Tracy Letts's mutton-chopped editor of the Weekly Volcano.
Florence Pugh steals nearly every scene she's in, her Amy traveling the life journey from immature younger sister to that of a more grounded, well-rounded young woman. She's funny, often breathing life wondrously into Gerwig's intentionally layered dialogue, yet the humor is earned and real and effective and richly authentic. Casting relative newcomer Eliza Scanlen as Beth amongst all these A-listers and B-listers could have been a gamble, yet Scanlen's presence here is inspired and Scanlen understands where she fits within this structure perfectly. It's a beautiful performance. Emma Watson brings dignity and fire to the role of Meg, far from a demure domestic type she is instead feverishly working toward the life she wants even if it doesn't quite afford her everything she'd like to have...both of these things can be true and Watson makes sure we understand that.
The key supporting character roles are filled with actors who rightfully should be front-and-center, yet they bring mastery to what they are asked to do. Bob Odenkirk is wonderful as the March father, while Louis Garrel at first seems somewhat out-of-place until we realize he should as Jo's boardinghouse suitor. Chris Cooper shines as Laurie's loving grandfather. Both Laura Dern and Meryl Streep, as one would expect, are stellar and make the most of limited screen time.
In addition to Le Saux's marvelous cinematography, Alexandre Desplat has contributed a wondrously layered score that follows every dip and curve of Gerwig's dialogue. Jacqueline Durran's period-appropriate costuming is impeccable and easily among the year's best in cinema.
Little Women ends with some Greta Gerwig mastery, a simple artistic choice that is nonetheless brilliant and intelligent and intuitive and absolutely inspired. It wraps a bow around a film that captures the essence of Little Women perhaps better than any other adaptation and turns it into a film with which anyone can identify and anyone can embrace.
My father was wrong. "Little Women" has never been a book "for girls" and Little Women taps into the universality of a story about the beloved young women known as the March sisters and the lives they chose and the lives that chose them. There's wonder and dignity and brilliance and tragedy and joy and worth in all of it and for all of us.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic