Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig are shaping up to be one of young Hollywood’s iconic actor-director duos. Their first team up, 2017’s “Lady Bird,” both earned them Oscar nominations—the same ones that “Little Women” acquired for this year’s awards. Gerwig, however, was notably snubbed from the roster of Best Director nominees, which was comprised solely of men. It seems to echo the very point of “Little Women,” that even to this day women have to work twice as hard and still not break into “boy’s clubs.”
Adapted from the 1868 classic by Louisa May Alcott, “Little Women” is a coming-of-age story of the four March sisters, who are trying to find their place in a world that was built for men. Gerwig’s take is notably modern, with the sisters portrayed as fearless and brazen, not so much hampered by corsets and poofy skirts that were in fashion at the time. These sisters are fiercely loyal to each other; they’re creative and strong-willed, getting into realistic sibling spats that sometimes get physical.
Told nonlinearly, following threads of different stories might take some getting used to. It does keep the film’s energy up and shows audiences how interwoven the sisters’ lives are, and how their childhood experiences inform their decisions into adulthood.
It’s one of last year’s major movies for many reasons, but its overt feminism is one of the big ones. It’s enthralling to watch these young women come into their own, find their own feminism while living at the time they were born into. Meg (Emma Watson), the eldest, chose to marry for love and we see her burdened by realities of poverty and marriage. Jo’s (Saoirse Ronan) ambition has made her a woman ahead of her time, Beth’s (Eliza Scanlen) strength is seen in her gentle treatment of others and overcoming her timidness, and Amy’s (Florence Pugh) practicality in seeing marriage as an “economic proposition” is stunning to watch unfold.
Romantic love is still a major theme in this film, especially in the character of Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) who in the book is famous for falling in love with an entire family. Having loved Jo his entire life, he ends up with her younger sister Amy anyway. Gerwig tries to distinguish that Laurie’s love for Amy is different than what he felt for Jo, but it still doesn’t undo the truth that he proposed to both, and that Jo wanted to take back her rejection of Laurie in an impassioned speech that might be one of the movie’s most memorable:
“Women have minds and souls as well as hearts, ambition and talent as well as beauty, and I’m sick of being told that love is all a woman is fit for, but I am so lonely.”
It’s also this complex Jo March that makes Gerwig’s take less straightforward and more up for interpretation. We don’t quite know if she ends up “having it all”—a career as a writer and love from a professor she’s befriended (Louis Garrel)—or if she chose to devote her life to writing instead. She even negotiates against her editor who wanted the Jo in her book to marry one of the love interests. What is clear is that her happy ending had been holding her first published book in her hands.
This choice of ending alludes to Louisa May Alcott’s own original intention to keep Jo unmarried, like she had been in real life. Her publishers insisted that if Jo didn’t marry, the book would be unsellable. Gerwig seemed to have honored the author’s original intentions by crafting a genius denouement to satisfy either endings.
It’s an enjoyable film, whether you’re familiar with the story or not. It isn’t particularly heartwarming save for Beth’s tragic storyline that is a sure tearjerker no matter the adaptation. Pugh’s bratty young Amy was a little confusing, but Ronan gives a career- high performance as a Jo March you want to root for and befriend. Even Watson and Scanlen held their own as the two other March sisters. Laura Dern and Meryl Streep also added some more star (girl) power as the often-away Marmee and disapproving Aunt March, respectively.
Greta Gerwig’s take on “Little Women” may be the most faithful to Louisa May Alcott’s own wishes. It still very much retains the plot, but ups the female empowerment where it can.