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Little Women

(2019) *** 1/2 Pg
135 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Greta Gerwig. Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, Louis Garrel, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts.

/content/films/5192/2.jpgSince 1868, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has resonated with readers. Perhaps, above all, the appeal lies in the story’s inherent self-empowerment: in its coming-of-age story—times four—of the March sisters, but also in its unavoidable feminism and its autobiographical origins. There’s little more empowering than telling one’s own story, and through her avatar Jo March and the love and strife that surround her, Alcott locates an authenticity that has sustained this essential American story for over 150 years and umpteen adaptations.

Little Women has been adapted over the decades for the stage (including as musicals and operas), for radio, for television, and for film. This Christmas, we get the eighth feature-film adaptation of Little Women, with three-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan following in the footsteps of Katherine Hepburn and Winona Ryder as Jo. Fret not. Writer-director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) is thinking what you’re thinking: what can this Little Women offer that the others—including a modern-day adaptation as recently as last year—haven’t already?—and she has answers. Aside from Gerwig's own comic and dramatic sensibilities (which never intrude on Alcott) and a stellar cast, her Little Women adopts a bold narrative approach to retelling Alcott’s two-volume story.

Alcott’s part one deals with the girls of the March family, while part two advances years to rejoin them as young women making their way into adult society. Invariably, adaptations retain this chronological order and its interest in what will happen to the girls as time, pardon the pun, marches on: to paraphrase Wordsworth, the child is mother of the woman. Gerwig leans in to the familiarity of Little Women, choosing to make the adult story the present and the childhood a past visited in flashbacks. It’s a choice that seems jarring and ill-advised at first, but one that increasingly pays emotional dividends as the film proceeds, rhyming adult fates with their corresponding childhood dreams and desires and joys and fears.

Gerwig delights in the portrait of the artist as a young woman, starting the film with an ironic Alcott quotation (“I’ve had lots of trouble, so I write jolly tales”) followed by Jo making her entrée into publishing by submitting her work to the judgement of a man, editor Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts, harrumphing amusingly). Through the flashbacks, we see Jo developing her artistry through amateur theatrics and the accumulation of life experience in the company of her sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Eliza Scanlen), and Beth (Florence Pugh). The girls grow up in Concord, Massachusetts under the guidance of their beloved “Marmee” (Laura Dern), a de facto single mother in the temporary absence of Father March (Bob Odenkirk), away as a chaplain to Civil War troops. The girls tolerate their grumpy but well-off great aunt (a hilarious Meryl Streep) and warm to their neighbors, kind Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) and his grandson Theodore "Laurie" Laurence (Timothée Chalamet).

In a way, Laurie becomes “one of the girls,” ingratiating himself and inevitably becoming a romantic prospect. It’s part of Little Women’s genius that landing a man isn’t the be all and end all of the story, despite its vintage. Certainly marriage is a key consideration for these little women, but at least for Jo, it is a secondary one to vocation (“I love my liberty too well to be in any hurry to give it up,” she attests), and the March girls were raised too well to settle for a suitable arrangement in place of a satisfying romance. Still, the drama surrounding Laurie’s romantic triangle with two of the March girls gives the story its most potent emotional passages, with the ever-resonant Chalamet wearing his heart on his sleeve first as gawky youth and then as a sullen and somewhat resigned young man.

While on her path, Jo worries, “Who will be interested in a story of domestic struggles and joys? It doesn’t have any real importance, does it?” Of course, she needn’t have been concerned. Little Women still speaks loudly, clearly, and truthfully for women’s equality, the growth of character, and the pride of artistry with characters that remain as vital and relatable as when they were conceived.

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