I don't have the same intimate love of film my husband has. Usually they serve as the background noise in my overly responsible feeling day-to-day life- a TV on in the back ground. So when I asked Pete to watch the kids so I could see the new Little Women he was perhaps overly enthusiastic to kick me out of the house. Leaving my new nursling and toddler in his good hands I set off with the intent to have some wine, sit beside a friend, and catch my first in-theater movie since Frozen II.
Little Women hits all the Feels. Greta Gerwig, the director, earned a spot in my heart with Lady Bird. I remember the satisfaction of watching Saoirse Ronan (who is stunning in appearance and talent) donning acne during her role as the teenage Lady Bird in the film by the same name. There is something so satisfying about beautiful women who are allowed to show imperfections and be at times appropriately non-beautiful. That same 'allowing of women to be people as opposed to ideals' is on display beautifully in the new Little Women. It is often described as the classic coming of age tale of 4 sisters set against the (not too present) background of the American Civil War.
Saoirse Ronan plays Jo and there may never be another Jo for me. She storms when she should storm and rejoices with her whole person when she should play and be happy. Watching her nose redden like Rudolph as she cries on screen was wordlessly satisfying. Seeing her angry and frustrated by the constraints of the society that tether her back, when all the stories she writes in the movie would carry her and her sisters off into the realm of pirates, adventure and fairy tales is...real. And really felt. The movie's setting is just far enough away from our own that we can emphasize with her and stop there, without feeling that perhaps a little of our own catharsis is occurring too.
The film toggles between Jo's childhood memories with her sisters in New England vs. the more somber reality of her adult life, trying to make it as a writer in New York. There is excellent chemistry between the actresses (Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, and finally Eliza Scalon as Beth). Laurie, Jo's childhood other half, is played brilliantly by Timothee Chalamet and is successfully both endearing and infuriating when needed. He brings great physicality to his role, the kind of use of body that is commonly seen in slap-stick comedy and rarely seen in 'serious' acting. It is delightful.
The female actresses are excellent. My only criticism of the casting would be that there is no universe where these four women look related, but with suspension of that belief it is otherwise perfect chemistry. Watson is Meg the older, mature sister. I almost feel little acting was needed on Watson's part for this role: the character is reminiscent of the Belle she played in the Beauty and the Beast from 2017- beautiful but poor, romantic and self-sacrificing but also tenacious. It's a beautiful character but it also isn't new for her. But then, she does it so well, who am I to criticize...
Beth, poor Beth, often feels under-developed- written to die. I will say she is more flushed out as a character in this film than prior incarnations of her, such as the 1994 version of the movie. Her internal, soft approach to her family and neighbors, is beautifully rendered by Scalon. Her character confirms, unfortunately, what we that work in medicine have known since training: the worst things tend to happen to the best of people. And so she goes. But knowing she is a doomed character did not take away from the pain of watching how Gerwig shows her loss: jumping in time between her miraculous recovery from illness in her youth to her ultimate death in the present makes it all the more tragic. It's the idea made script that you can only cheat death for so long. The juxtaposition is hard to watch, taking the viewer from elation to sadness with whip-lashing speed. But the loss after the joy also feels very appropriate for the tone of the overall film.
The style Gerwig uses to show the story helps weave this theme of youthful joy against present day loss beautifully: scenes jump in time between Jo's play filled childhood, shot in rich warn honey tones, and scenes from Jo's present, shot in cool wintery blues. The paralleling of weather, color, and tone all feels very Storm and Stress but in an understated, appropriate to the story way. When Beth dies in the present day, her funeral is beautifully back lit, taking those warm tones that accompany their childhood and giving the loss a sort of calm, redemptive quality. I was crying into my over-priced white wine.
Meryl Streep plays Aunt March, the wealthy matron and in Gerwig's version the pragmatist of the family that guides Amy towards her financially successful adulthood. Streep is so over-brimming with talent (I'm biased, my husband has watched Mama Mia a few too many times for his liking) that she also knows when to reign it in. She is controlled, her makeup monotone- foreshadowing of the pragmatic, somber tones of the girls' futures even in their rich sun-bathed childhood.
However the most impressive part of this movie is Amy, played by Florence Pugh.** Where as 1994's Amy was a whining, immature trope of a youngest child played by Kristen Dunst, this Amy is somehow endearing and able to side-step becoming the villain of the story. She, like Jo with her red nose, is allowed to be imperfect. She is childish and angry in youth but also playful and loving and most importantly made understandable. She alone seems conscious of the responsibilities she bears as one by one her sisters declare in different ways that their family's financial survival will not be their responsibility to bare. Modern time Amy is very well aware of the limits of her talents and authority in the world she occupies. And rather than ranging up against that wall like Jo, she finds a way to navigate: ensuring, despite her childhood economic limitations, travel to Europe, a wealthy marriage, and in marrying her childhood friend, a degree of autonomy and control of her adult life. Amy is not romantic Jo. And she is successful because of her pragmatism. She even ends up in her adulthood, happy and cared for. I can't help but root for this Amy.
Last of all there is the issue of Jo's marriage. After a movie of refusing to be bridled-down in marriage Gerwig leaves it intentionally vague as to whether Jo actually goes forward with the marriage in Louis May Alcott's book. Friedrich Bhaer, played beautifully by Louis Garrel, plays her suitor, but the Jo in our movie never seems to even tolerate him much until they are suddenly, surprisingly in love. This happy ending goes for sure to the Jo of the Little Women novel our movie Jo writes in towards the end of the film; it is negotiated between her publisher and herself. Does movie Jo also marry him? It's vague. And a bit Meta.
But the Jo marriage line never made so much sense as it does here: "If I am to sell my heroine into marriage, I may as well get some of the money" movie Jo declares as she negotiates with her resistant, male, as she maneuver's for a higher cut of the book's profits. Ultimately it's him who can't conceive of a happy ending for her that other's would buy into that does not involve marriage. Can the audience?
I can't help but think movie Jo never married, as Louisa May Alcott herself did not. She ended a happy, ink under her finger nails, spinster. But either way, this Jo seems a lot more like Amy than any other version of Little Women I have encountered. I buy by the end of it all, that those women were sisters that helped themselves get along in the world, each in their own way.
**Side note, anyone reading Lore Olympus on Webtoons? It's a delightful modern retelling of the abduction of Persephone by Hades, God of death, and just got picked up by Jim Henson Company to be made into a Netflix series. Florence Pugh would make a great Persephone. Small but curvy, naive but clever. I can't unsee it.