Little Women: A new take on an old classic

Little Women (Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, Meryl Streep, Timothée Chalamet) – “It’s a movie about women for women,” was my answer to my wife’s question of “What did you think?”  I suppose that may sound sexist.  I was one of three men in a relatively full theater.  Greta Gerwig, Oscar nominated director and writer, felt compelled to make yet another movie version of Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel to mark its sesquicentennial year.

Gerwig’s film is a more modern take on the classic, featuring outstanding cinematography, a memorable score, and an (almost) all-star cast led by 3-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan with substantial roles for the incomparable Laura Dern (2 nominations), Meryl Streep (3 Oscars, 21 nominations), and Chris Cooper (1 Oscar).  Ronan, who starred in Gerwig’s Lady Bird, portrays Jo March, the ambitious, headstrong daughter who serves as the focal point of the film (and, arguably, the book).  In the semi-autobiographical book, Alcott, one of four sisters, is a writer and a fearless woman in a time when men dominated.

The fictional sisters – Meg, Amy and Beth — are played by Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen. The sisters are extremely different … and extraordinarily close.  Their mother, Marmee (Dern), is loving, permissive, and supportive.  Her husband, the girls’ father, is off in the Civil War.

The female characters are deeply explored; the male characters are more thinly drawn, all of which makes perfect sense in a film about women.  Jo may have been the first American, unapologetically feminist character in literary history, certainly the most well-known.  Her sisters are more traditional but admire Jo’s writing and her ambition.  Jo’s best friend is the rich next-door neighbor, Teddy (known as Laurie to everyone else), who is clearly in love with her.  But love is the furthest thing from her mind.  Meanwhile, Laurie (Oscar nominee Timothée Chalamet), is loved by Amy.  We meet a cacophony of characters, including Teddy/Laurie’s generous grandfather, Mr. Laurence (played by Chris Cooper); the girls’ surly Aunt March (Meryl Streep); and the publisher at Roberts Brothers (Tracy Letts), who prints Jo’s stories.

The film is a generally light and breezy story about the maturation of these four Little Women in a safe and toney community in Massachusetts near the end of the Civil War.  Under Gerwig’s deft hand, the girls play together, share their lives, and hug a lot.  That feels unnatural by today’s standards, but it serves to bind the audience to the sisters.  We feel attached to them, which makes the story timeless, maternal, and ultimately satisfying.  As the girls live and love, grieve and grow, they ultimately must face disconnection.  As the audience, we know it before they do.

Gerwig has crafted a version of Little Woman that should do well at the box office this holiday season but faces a less certain future from the Academy.  It will be interesting to see what Oscar nominations it might garner.  The Golden Globes only nominated Ronan and the score, and the Academy may be dismissive as well.  In an age where more women are helming films in the middle of the #MeToo movement, we will see if the Academy recognizes all of these not-so Little Women.

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