Little Women is a gorgeous masterpiece
★★★★ | Be still, my heart
Little Women, eloquently written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is a deeply touching adaptation that effortlessly translates the 1886 novel for future generations.
Capturing in lavish detail the minutiae of its source material, Gerwig’s film is both traditional and wildly contemporary. Little Women is epic in scope, deeply intimate, uproariously funny, and heartbreakingly all at once. It feels like an all-encompassing embrace that you want to return to the second it’s over.
Encompassing three generations of March women, the film charts a decade of sisters growing up, drifting apart, and finding their way together again. Told through nonlinear intercutting between periods, Gerwig uses repetitive motifs and visuals to communicate just how fickle our memories are. A past victory becomes a painful memory, while teenage heartbreak feels like a distant joke years later.
As the story grows, Gerwig lets her timelines breathe freely, allowing the audience to keep track of memory and present for themselves. The resulting film feels lived in, where memories endlessly swell in motion, ready to overtake those who least expect it. It’s not that Jo, the narrator, and stand-in for Louisa May Alcott, is unreliable — but nostalgia is. Freeing the narrative from traditional constraints, Little Women allows the heart to wander in the passage of time.
Similarly, Gerwig eschews the chance to cast multiple actors in the same part. Instead, the cast remains unchanged regardless of the time period. There’s been a vacuous hubbub about Florence Pugh playing someone in their early teens, which is missing the point. We see the women as they feel themselves to be, not who they physically are at the time. We only catch glimpses of them as an outsider would in fleeting images. In these moments their appearance is entirely superficial. They appear as strangers because we cannot see who they are on the inside.
Pugh shines in every scene. When Amy breaks down sobbing over her punishment at school, Pugh allows herself to lose control with childlike abandon. While no trickery appears present, I could swear I was witnessing the young and old merge into one. The result is the kind of magic only possible in film.
Elsewhere, Emma Watson showcases wonderful nuance and sophistication in a difficult part as Meg, the oldest sister who follows the most traditional path. In what could be a minor and diminished part, Watson balances expectation and disappointment with great subtlety. The tenderness and quiet optimism in the portrayal of her marriage is one of the highlights of the film.
As Beth, Eliza Scanlen grounds the inherent goodness of the family in a touching performance. Often trampled by the boisterous nature of her more outgoing sisters, Beth seeks solace in music. Finding an unexpected benefactor in Laurie’s grandfather (a charming Chris Cooper), her story is one filled with compassion and humanity.
Laurie is played by Timothée Chalamet. Keenly aware of his statuesque looks possibly made in a lab, Laurie is smarmy, capricious, and arrogant. Yet Chalamet never allows him to be truly hateable. He is, like the others, still a child. Coming from the upper class due to inherited wealth, Laurie appears in their life like a bolt of lightning. And like lightning, he leaves devastation in his thunderous and uncaring wake.
Saoirse Ronan, one of the great actors of her time, carries the film as Jo. She appears in nearly every scene as an incandescent ball of energy with an unfaltering moral compass. Encapsulating both an ideal as well as a potential tragedy, Ronan breathes Jo with life beyond her years. Gerwig in turn allows her to be everything from rambunctious to graceful, lovely, and petty. Jo is not perfect, and she’s all the better for it.
The indispensable Laura Dern holds down the fort as Marmee. The beating heart of the March family, Marmee guides the girls with kindness and decency. Particularly in a standout scene where she confesses her battle to contain her anger at the world.
Others, similarly, get equally beautiful soliloquies. Determined to live her way, Jo mourns the unfair cost society claims such a life can be obtained. Meg reminds Jo that just because her dreams are different from her sister’s they hold the same value. In a showstopper performance, Pugh delivers a seismic monologue about the societal inequality that marriage brings, even today.
These are intense discussions worthy of generational sharing, just as important today as they were a hundred years ago, and Gerwig makes them feel honest and true.
Gerwig has also fully realized Alcott’s parallels between book and reality. In a moment of metafiction, Jo fully takes Alcott’s place, giving life to the book that will affect millions. It’s a touching tribute allowing the story to break free from the page to make its mark on the world.
Little Women acknowledges the sacrifices life demands everyone to make but refuses to accept them as finalities. Unabashedly optimistic, Greta Gerwig’s film is a rallying cry for personal agency and faith in yourself. Especially in the face of something as overwhelming as life itself. It’s also a plea for decency and kindness to one another, where love of any kind can conquer all.