So often we see a particular brand of filmmaker who seems to believe that if their movie is full of convoluted storytelling, people might perceive it as better quality. Which obviously isn’t true, and director Greta Gerwig wisely didn’t fall into that narrative trap with her last film, Lady Bird. But in her adaptation of Little Women she seems to embrace that philosophy to the fullest.
Based on Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel, this coming-of-age story follows four sisters in post-Civil War America, centering on Jo (Saoirse Ronan), a talented writer on the verge of publishing her work, while her sisters – each with their own talents – have dreams as well. Meg (Emma Watson) wishes to become a famous actress on stage, Beth (Eliza Scanlen), a brilliant pianist, satisfies herself by performing for the delight of family and friends, while the youngest Amy (Florence Pugh) is a great visual artist who gets into trouble at school for her drawings.
As with any family, the personal tragedies – both large and small – shift and change the relationship dynamics between the girls over the course of seven years. The film touches on an array of relatable topics that would appeal to anyone. Gerwig, who also wrote the script, addresses the conflicting desires of marriage with not wanting to be alone. Jo, who is pursued by Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), doesn’t want to get married, no matter how many times he proposes. For her, the idea of marriage symbolizes the loss of freedom, but the independence you sacrifice is gained in companionship. Ultimately, Jo has to live with her decision, no matter how heartbreaking or lonely it is.
Unfortunately, Gerwig falters in her ability to vilify any of the characters. Jo is brash and unlikeable, but we’re made to think her good qualities are enough to make up for the rest of her traits. When one of the sisters does an utterly despicable act, we’re supposed to ignore her actions and accept it for what it is. Not vilifying any of the main characters hinders the filmmaker’s ability to develop certain relationships, and therein lies Gerwig’s agenda which often contradicts her desire to maintain the integrity of the story.
Fortunately, the movie is carried by immersive sets and solid acting by its young leads. Ronan gives the quality performance we’ve come to expect from the young actress, but outshining her is Pugh, who is incredibly convincing in her role, never making us question the believability of her actions.
Though the novel has been adapted countless times before, this new version of Little Women lacks the true intrigue that made Louisa May Alcott’s original story so captivating and timeless. Despite great performances and her undeniably great direction, Greta Gerwig has crafted a movie for very specific audiences – those who loved the original novel and/or those who have a deep love for 19th century period pieces. If you aren’t party to either of those, or simply can’t relate to the characters, this movie may be somewhat alienating.