From the start, writer-director Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” sets the tone that it doesn’t want to be a retread of the same material.
The March family, consisting of three sisters and their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), already are grown up and splintered off. Most notably, Amy (Florence Pugh) is in France with her judgmental Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Meanwhile, Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is busy trying to sell her stories in New York.
These moments are juxtaposed with the March family’s memories, happier times filmed with a golden hue of when they were naive girls, accidentally burning their hair on irons and getting their feet stuck in buckets. The movie see-saws between the past and present, with the former informing the latter. It’s the perfect way to re-contextualize a story that’s been told on the big screen seven times prior.
This version of Alcott’s story has a modern energy. Ronan’s ability to radiate child-like glee and exude teenage sadness allows her to shine on screen as Jo, the alpha of the sisters, as she mourns what she sees as the tragedies of being a female (not being able to say certain words, the expectations of finding true love), while being the protector of her sisters.
Already fantastic as a wrestler in “Fighting With My Family” and a downtrodden girlfriend in “Midsommar,” Pugh shows she can flex different acting muscles as she jumps between being a pouting child and a proper young adult.
Doing competent supporting work, Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen as Amy and Beth make the March family’s bond feel tangible and lived-in. As their rich neighbors, Timothée Chalamet (Laurie) and Chris Cooper (Mr. Laurence) add a surprising amount of warmth to their roles.
The cast is supported equally by Gerwig’s direction, which sharply captures the manic joys of youth, using a conservative amount of slow motion during dances and the Marches running through the streets, and the depressing feeling of it all slipping away, with present-tense scenes filmed with a somber blue filter.
The structure of this version of “Little Women” could be viewed as a gimmick, where a character will make a passing reference to an incident from the past and the next scene is a flashback to the period surrounding it. But it does this in such a way that never feels on the nose, it always works.
There are scenes that burst with such life and care, like Laurie and Jo sharing a wild dance outdoors and Mr. Laurence sharing his piano with the shy Beth, that you wonder why more movies like this aren’t released in mainstream theaters.
Each cinematic version of “Little Women” has had a different flavor to match its respective generation. This feels like the most fitting version for this one — one that wears its emotions on its sleeve without feeling pandering and is brilliantly acted and directed.
— Andrew Gaug | St. Joe Live