For some of us, there is no more beloved a story than Little Women. Discussions about spoiled Amy versus quirky Jo, or breaking down the pros and cons of Laurie against Professor Bhear can be the formative pop culture discussion of our (albeit a little nerdy, yes) youth.
Happily, fans won’t be disappointed with Greta Gerwig’s sweet, sharp, and surprisingly funny version. The story of four very different sisters and their hopes and dreams remains quite vibrant. We’ve got eager-to-please eldest Meg (Emma Watson), spunky tomboy Jo (Saoirse Ronan), sweet and sickly Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and bratty Amy (Florence Pugh). Gerwig keeps in all the childish hijinks you remember — pickled lime bets and living room plays and burnt hair — but it becomes clear rather quickly that this will be a decidedly more adult adaptation.
Reveling in the same sweet spot that made Lady Bird such a success, the most powerful moments are when the characters are grappling with big feminist questions in a small domestic way.
Reveling in the same emotional sweet spot that made Gerwig’s mainstream breakthrough Lady Bird such a success, the most powerful moments of Little Women are when the characters are grappling with big feminist questions in a small domestic way. Jo faces an internal struggle between following her dreams to be a big-city writer and the societal pressure to be a wife and mother, Meg tangles in jealousy and hurt, and Amy delivers a clear-eyed analysis of what is most important in a marriage. It’s potent to see versions of the same questions women are dealing with in 2019 portrayed in such a compassionate way. The circumstances of our lives may be different, but these questions endure, for better or worse.
Speaking of Amy, Pugh is Oscar-worthy outstanding. In many previous versions, the character gets shortchanged a bit, remembered for her spoiled, little girl tantrums and her conflicts with Jo. It was gratifying to see Gerwig and Pugh team up for something better this time around — a thoughtful look at a young woman with a lot of family pressure who makes choices that we may not agree with, but we certainly understand. Pugh brings dimension to even the character’s shallowest moments, not to mention supplying some of the film’s biggest laughs.
Her storyline also benefits the most from the biggest risk this adaptation takes. Instead of unfolding chronologically, Gerwig shakes up the timeline so we are bouncing all around over seven years. Sometimes we’re in a certain month or year for merely a scene, sometimes much longer. This allows for strong emotional wallops, heartwarming reunions, and love stories that unfold in unexpected ways. It also can occasionally be a bit confusing, especially for those who didn’t sparknote a Little Women recap beforehand. A quibble, but it’s slightly disorientating.
The touching beats still deliver, however. I’m being purposefully opaque here, but Timothée Chalamet as rich boy next door Laurie is properly devastating, and his relationship with Jo is heartbreaking in the best way. As Jo, Ronan is stunning. Between her playful energy in flashback and her exhausted world-weariness later on, she hits the treasured role out of the park. Viewers will be thinking about her tearful, broken speech about being tired of being lonely long past the point when it inevitably plays at the Oscars.
But it’s not just two hours of heartbreak. The joy shines through, particularly the stunning final 20-ish minutes, which for my money are among the most pleasurable available at the movies this year. By showing what is also explicitly stated — that the inner lives of young women matter, and are stories worth telling — Gerwig finds something special and new in the old tale, and reminds us of the thrilling power of discovering your voice. She and Ronan thread a wonderful needle about the dichotomy of what we want from our female protagonists, and stick one hell of a heartfelt, uplifting landing.
Not too shabby for a story that’s 160 years old.
Little Women is in theaters Dec. 25.