Starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Meryl
Streep, Timothee Chalamet, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk
Austin Family Critical Rating: ***** of *****
Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: **** ½ of *****
Greta Gerwig is one of my favorite onscreen performers to emerge in the last ten years– her ebullient, sometimes slapstick screen persona has been wonderfully utilized in films like Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2013) and Mistress America (2015), Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women (2016) and Barry Levinson’s The Humbling (2014). Therefore, it was no surprise when her directorial debut, Lady Bird (2017), was one of the strongest coming-of-age films of recent years.
Some directors might use the success of a film like Lady Bird to jump into helming a major franchise – indeed, some of the most promising independent filmmakers of recent years have sadly been recruited to direct tentpole or superhero films (most of which are designed by committee). Gerwig smartly used her clout to write and direct a stunning new adaptation of Little Women, based on the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott. Like Lady Bird, Gerwig’s new film is full of the wit and humor she brings to her performances as an actress (although Little Women represents a major step up in terms of scope and ambition compared to her first film).
Gerwig’s Lady Bird muse Saoirse Ronan stars as Jo, a young woman living in 1860s Massachusetts with her three sisters (played by Florence Pugh, Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen) and mother, Marmee (Laura Dern). Each of the four sisters has different
aspirations – while Jo is deeply independent and longs to become a famous writer, Meg (Watson) is focused more on the societal angle, eager to marry and have children. Then there’s Amy (Pugh), the youngest, whose early immaturity gives way to a more refined
sense of self while staying with her Aunt March (Meryl Streep) in Europe. Beth (Scanlen) has the most tragic trajectory of the four sisters – plagued by scarlet fever, she brings the family closer together as they care for her.
As someone who has not read the novel nor seen any of the prior film versions of this story, I am told the most unique and innovative aspect of Gerwig’s adaptation is the dual chronology, in which she intercuts between the early days of the sisters’ adventures and the later part of the story, when Jo is in New York City pursuing her craft as a writer, while Amy is in Europe with Aunt March. From a newcomer’s perspective, this works marvelously, and it actually allows for Gerwig to avoid redundancies and repeated beats within the story (in the book, Beth becomes seriously ill twice – whereas her sickness in
Gerwig’s film is treated as one major story beat, occurring simultaneously over two different timelines). There’s also never any confusion about the timeline in which the film is currently set, partly because of Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography. Whereas the color temperature is
warm and inviting in the first timeline, the look changes to a bluer and frostier palette in the second timeline (I had the pleasure of watching Little Women in a 35mm print, where this difference in color was even more noticeable). Although Little Women has been in cinemas for over a month now, people are still seeing the film in droves (the movie received six Oscar nominations, which is helping it even more). Gerwig and her wonderful cast deserve immense praise for this remarkable adaptation, which is alive, funny and deeply moving.
Little Women is rated PG, primarily for thematic material involving a major character’s death. Depending on your child’s interest in the material, I recommend the film for ages eight and above.