To set in the Civil War era a story about four sisters coming of age, there could have been a grayness to the latest adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Like its central character Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) being so unwaveringly resistant of what it means, in that time, to come of age, Little Women, in 2019, could have taken up the feminist mantle of challenging the status quo using the big screen as its megaphone. In pushing her ideals onto her sisters, Jo would be pushing them onto us. But that’s not at all what this is.
Greta Gerwig’s Little Women feels so colorful and alive. Meg, Amy, Beth and Jo feel as close to this era as their outfits, modes of transportation and general circumstances suggest they do to the late 1800s. Jo, of course, is trying like hell to keep societal norms at a safe distance, even though she doesn’t have to, but her sisters are all a little different. Amy (Florence Pugh, in her third completely different role of the year) aspires to make a name for herself, like Jo, while at the same time still being confidently boy-crazy and dreaming of having money one way or another. Beth (Eliza Scanlen), the musical one, is held back more by the absence of modern medicine than the era’s social expectations, and Meg (Emma Watson); well, Meg dreams of having a family. The point is: That’s OK, or as Meg tells Jo on the morning of Meg’s wedding, “Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.” Jo isn’t trying to push her sisters into taking up her vision, and the movie onto us isn’t trying to either. They are modern women, the March sisters, and there’s no right way to be that.
To tell a unique coming of age story for each of the four sisters, Gerwig chose to jump back-and-forth between past and present timelines. It’s such a payoff, in the end, when they are so cleverly threaded back together in the present for one final push moving the story into the future and to its conclusion. What I appreciated so much about Gerwig’s adaptation was her inclusion of what I’d call the little memories from childhood — the pillow fights that happen when mom leaves the house, the secret club meetings in the annex, the skits you spend all day planning. In that way, Little Women identified so much with me as a story about growing up with siblings and the memories you make together, as much as the ones you make on your own. In keeping these corky little memories in the story, it celebrates family, no matter if it’s one with four sisters or one brother and one sister. I identified with Amy, which I’ve heard you’re not supposed to do (spoilers), but when you’re a middle child and your older sibling is running off doing something fun and unknown, you follow along. In particular, when you’re a middle child, you can look up to your older sibling so much and at the same time feel personally embattled with always being known as their brother or their sister. It’s all a part of our stories, in the end, and that’s what has always made Little Women so relatable. I’d never read the book or seen the other movies, before going to this one. I went mostly for Ronan and Gerwig — a little bit for Pugh. (Is it Ronan’s best individual performance? Probably not. Pugh’s? Maybe. I haven’t seen Midsommer. Is it Gerwig’s best film? It’s way too early to tell.) But now I understand why people feel so connected to it: I see some of myself in Amy, just as anyone else may see any part of themselves in Meg, Beth or Jo.
And you don’t have to be a woman to feel it.
Little Women: ★★★ 1/2