Director Greta Gerwig keeps the bones of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” in the new big screen treatment of the 19th century story, but reshapes the March sisters’ coming-of-age in fresh and exciting ways.
Set at the time of the Civil War, the eighth film adaptation of the tale sees the March’s, debutant Meg (Emma Watson), strong willed Jo (Saoirse Ronan), sickly and sweet Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and self-centerd Amy (Florence Pugh), with mother Marmee (Laura Dern), living a threadbare existence. The war has stripped them of whatever money they once had but they remain committed to charity—helping a destitute family down the road—and one another as they wait for the return of their father (Bob Odenkirk) from the battlefield.
As the story jumps through time their lives intersect with Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence (Timothée Chalamet), a charming, wealthy lay-about neighbor who has designs on Jo, his millionaire uncle (Chris Cooper), acid-tongued Aunt March (Meryl Streep) and Mr. Dashwood, the terse-talking newspaper publisher.
Told on a broken timeline, “Little Women” forgoes the linear structure of the novel to jump back-and-forth in time. It’s a clever device that takes some getting used to—at first it’s not immediately obvious the story is skipping around like a flat rock skimming across a lake—but ultimately it provides insightful perspective on the characters and why they make the decisions they do. Gerwig has fiddled with the story’s collision of feminism, romance and family dynamics just enough to amplify its resonance for a modern audience. Playing around with a well loved and well-worn classic is risky, but Gerwig pulls it off with panache, aided by an extraordinary cast who bring the material to vivid life.
As a collective the cast of “Little Women” are as finely tuned as the piano Beth practices on, pitch perfect with no sour notes.
Chalamet, reteaming with Ronan and Gerwig after the success of “Lady Bird,” drips charisma as the foppish and devoted friend/love interest Laurie. He’s equal parts awkward and arrogance, putting a new spin on a character that’s been played by everyone from Peter Lawford to Christian Bale.
Streep and Letts drop in for some comic relief but it is the chemistry between the sisters that is the film’s biggest success. Previous adaptations have tilted in Jo’s favor, giving her the most screen time and the juiciest character arc. Gerwig recalibrates, allowing each of the sisters to shine. The story still revolves around Jo’s interactions with each of the women, but here each of them push the story forward. Watson beings kindness and empathy to Meg. In Scanlen’s hands Beth is sweetly realistic about her lot in life. Ronan and Pugh leave the largest impression, imprinting the tale with their steeliness, humor and humanity.
“Little Women” is a rarity. It’s an adaptation of an often told tale that manages a rethink while still holding true to what made the source material so beloved.