Little Women (2019)
Written & Directed by Greta Gerwig
There is a moment early in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women, where aspiring author Jo and her new friend Laurie are dancing on the front porch of the house where a party is taking place. The characters are lost in the silly joy of the evening in a way that is entirely genuine. The music is playful alongside them, and I couldn’t help but find myself smiling, totally absorbed in that piece of the story. This is how it feels throughout this version of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, a celebration of life that doesn’t hide the fact that bad things still happen. How we use those tragedies to inform our understanding of ourselves is what matters.
Gerwig has opted to structure the story as alternating between the childhood of the four characters Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth & their early adult years. This helps show the challenges they are dealing with during this transition time. We see Meg eager to start meeting potential suitors as a teenager and then her life in a small house with two children, struggling to make ends meet. Jo is a wide-eyed passionate writer as a young girl, and then we see her dealing with the male-dominated publishing world in New York. It’s a smart way to restructure the narrative and show how certain moments are reflected in both periods.
The film addresses the challenges of women in this period, American in the mid-19th century. Marriage is a financial transaction in the eyes of women, an opportunity to leverage their qualities for a better life. Amy explains this to Laurie by detailing how any money she earns becomes her husband’s upon marriage, and the children would be considered his property. Jo sees marriage as giving up her personal liberty. It’s interesting because their parents feel like a representation of the opposite sort of union. The girls are very aware that their particular family is the exception to the norm.
The brilliant shining star of this picture is Saoirse Ronan as Jo. She takes the same energy from Lady Bird and applies it to this character’s particular drives. She’s talented and ambitious, but also okay with being vulnerable and not always having life turn out how she wishes. Her chemistry with Timothee Chalamet as Laurie is remarkable. They play the roles not as stiff archetypes but realistic portrayals of teenagers and young people during this period. You can see precisely why Laurie falls for Jo, which makes her rejection that much more painful. But she is likely right, they are so invigorated by their friendship that to make the relationship more than platonic would kill what makes it unique. Laurie will inevitably want Jo to give herself wholly to him to relinquish some of her pursuits, but she can’t.
Florence Pugh also delivers a fantastic performance as Amy, who I would argue, is a protagonist of equal prominence as Jo in this adaptation. Pugh has a tough task ahead of her, playing the childish thirteen-year-old Amy and the more worldly-wise twenty-year-old. As with Jo’s attic plays, there is a suspension of disbelief as Pugh is obviously not thirteen yet adopts body language and a manner of speaking that helps the audience believe she is. She is just as strong as Jo in understanding the place of her sex at this time but has taken a different route. Amy knows her art is mediocre, and for her, she wants to be the best or nothing at all, marriage is one way to secure a stable future if you can’t do it yourself.
Never once does Gerwig present her moments of joy in a way that could be interpreted as contrived or phony. The joy and love here are wholly authentic and are made even more so by allowing the hard moments to happen and wash over the characters. The brilliant passing of Beth scene highlights the way these moments come and go in our lives. The timeline moves back and forth between the beginning of Beth’s illness and her last day. Jo wakes up and finds Beth has gotten back on her feet and is missing from the bed. Then we see adult Jo waking up to the same empty bed, but knowing this isn’t going to turn out the same way.
Greta Gerwig has secured a spot for herself as one of the great directors of our current time. She does a magnificent job in all her pictures of showing the lives of women who feel the world’s cynicism towards their art and continue on despite that. Gerwig is not afraid of the messiness of life, knowing that if you never encountered it, then you would not truly live.