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‘Little Women,’ big feelings

January 7, 2020
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No matter how voracious a cultural consumer we might be, the reality is that there’s just too much out there for anyone to experience it all. Too many books to read, to many songs to hear, too many films and plays and shows to watch. There will always be gaps.

For instance, I myself have a “Little Women”-shaped hole in my own cultural experience. Despite the relative ubiquity of Louisa Mae Alcott’s classic novel and its multitude of film and stage adaptations, I had never directly engaged with the story. I never read the novel, nor saw it on stage or screen. Yes, I had a very basic awareness due to its cultural presence, but it boiled down to basic timeframe, number of sisters and the plot point that Rachel spoils for Joey on an episode of “Friends.”

So I wondered what kind of experience I would have seeing this new “Little Women” cinematic adaptation. It comes courtesy of Greta Gerwig, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed, and features an absolutely stacked ensemble cast. Obviously, the odds were in favor of this being a good movie. But would my lack of familiarity hinder my enjoyment?

Turns out I worried for nothing, because not only is “Little Women” a good film, it is a GREAT film. It is masterfully constructed and beautifully composed, featuring a wonderful period aesthetic and absolutely incredible performances. It stays true to the truths of the material’s history while also finding ways to endow those truths with elements tied to our own modern world. It’s an incredible feat of filmmaking, one that is almost certainly even better than you think it is, no matter how good you believe the movie to be.

In Massachusetts during the Civil War, a group of four sisters lives with their mother as they hope and pray for their father’s safe return from the battlefield. There’s Meg (Emma Watson, “Beauty and the Beast”), the eldest daughter with a gift for the stage and a desire to find love and start a family. There’s Amy (Florence Pugh, “Midsommar”), a lovely but insecure girl with a penchant for art and a tendency toward envy. There’s Beth (Eliza Scanlen, “Babyteeth”), a lover of music whose struggle with her health has become a central focus for the entire family. And then there’s Meg (Saoirse Ronan, “Mary Queen of Scots,” a headstrong tomboy with a deep desire to become a writer and an itch to escape the expectations placed on her by the society in which she lives.

These girls live in a cottage with their mother Marmee (Laura Dern, “Marriage Story”), doing their best to get by in times of struggle. Their fortunes are lifted when the March sisters make the acquaintance of Teddy Laurence (Timothee Chalamet, “The King”), known to his friends as Laurie. Laurie lives with his grandfather (Chris Cooper, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”). Both the younger and elder Laurence take a shine to the March family; Mr. Laurence in a gently benevolent manner, Laurie in a friendship capacity (though there’s a hint of romantic possibility in the air). Oh, and lest we forget, rich Aunt March (Meryl Streep, “The Laundromat”) is in the picture as well.

Framing that tale of the March sisters is a storyline, set a few years hence, involving an older Jo attempting to make her way as a writer in New York City. She’s found an editor named Dashwood (Tracy Letts, “Ford v Ferrari”) who’s willing to buy stories from her, though she must embrace a certain pulpiness to do so. But when she’s called to return home, she finds herself swept up in memory and wondering if perhaps the stories of her own childhood might have some literary merit themselves.

“Little Women” is an exceptional film. I found myself returning to it again and again in the days after I saw it. Little details kept bubbling to the forefront for my consideration – an actor’s gesture here, a deft turn of phrase there, a striking screen picture over here. All of it thoughtful and compelling, brought forward with a stylistic sharpness that meshed beautifully with the story being told. Even the softest moments had a clarity of purpose and decisive delineation that was mesmerizing to watch unfold.

Greta Gerwig has incredible gifts as an artist. She has incredible instincts as a director, with a particular knack for imparting her vision on both her collaborators and her audience. Those instincts are augmented by her writing ability, which might be even more impressive than her directorial talents. She knows how to tell a story with precision and pathos, to elevate the seemingly mundane into something powerful and universal.

That’s what happens with this story of the March sisters, four women whose creativity and intellect are more than their mid-19th century world expects from those of the female persuasion. Gerwig captures the timeless aspects of the story – the sisterly and familial bonds and the friendships and loves born of them – while also using them to comment on the regressive nature of that time and place. It is a commentary on what it means to love and what happens when different people view that love in different ways and seek it for different purposes. It’s about the cultural and economic realities of being a woman. It’s about not just making a choice, but understanding that there’s actually a choice to be made.

As mentioned before, the cast is exceptional. Ronan is as good as any of her peers and better than most; she’s an incredible performer who will be part of our lives for a long time. She perfectly embodies the stubborn contrarianism of Jo. Pugh is one of the few who can keep up with Ronan, endowing Amy with an intelligence and self-awareness that turns what could have been an unsympathetic character into perhaps the most sympathetic of the lot. Watson’s Meg is a woman who will not be shamed for wanting what she wants, even if it is conventional. And Scanlen’s Beth is a quiet, steadfast voice of reason; a lovely port in this March storm.

Chalamet is a delight, as per usual. He’s dashing and charismatic, with big flirting energy. Dern is good as the dutifully optimistic Marmee, while Cooper quietly shines as a lonely man seeking new ways to connect with the world. Meryl is Meryl, gnawing away at the scenery as the eccentric and opinionated Aunt March. Letts, Jayne Houdyshell, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel – they’re all great.

Knowing the players as I did, I figured I would like “Little Women.” I just didn’t know that I would like it this much. Had I seen it before issuing my Year’s Best list, it absolutely would have claimed a spot. Charming and clever, it’s simultaneously timeless and modern in a most exquisite way.

All in all, “Little Women” is a big success.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Thursday, 09 January 2020 09:58

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