Gerwig's Little Women honors Alcott's characters with fresh energy | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Gerwig's Little Women honors Alcott's characters with fresh energy

click to enlarge WILSON WEBB
Wilson Webb

It feels confusing to end the decade with such an excellent adaptation of Little Women since it was preceded by 10 years bloated with an excess of remakes and reboots. Greta Gerwig's Little Women could have felt tired and pointless, like the remakes of The Great Gatsby and Romeo and Juliet before it, but it is the exception. It's a sentimental movie just shy of saccharine, a tear-jerker but not melodramatic, a period piece that feels as alive as its vivacious protagonists.

In the mid-19th century, there were few options for (white) women to make a living outside of their inevitable husbands. Most were stuck at home caring for their numerous babies, with no framework for having a life outside of the home. This is the environment in which Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) comes of age in a house full of women. She lives with her mother (Laura Dern), and sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and Amy (Florence Pugh), while their father is fighting for the Union during the Civil War. Each sister fulfills an archetype that complements the others. Jo is an independent and strong-willed writer; Meg, the oldest, is proper and domestic; Beth is a kind but timid homebody; and Amy, the youngest, is spoiled but smart. 

The family is poor enough that they can't afford Christmas presents but not so poor that they can't eat. Their father's absence aside, they have a good life, putting on plays for each other, painting, playing the piano. One of the only men in their lives is Laurie, the grandson of a wealthy neighbor who becomes Jo's best friend, and a lifelong fixture for the family. He pines for Jo, but Jo pines for no one, except her pen and paper. Becoming a writer is more important to Jo than getting married or making money, but not more important than her sisters. Eventually, Meg marries and has kids, Amy takes painting classes in Europe, and Jo is making her way as a writer and teacher in New York, until Beth gets ill, and eventually dies, shaking the foundation of the family.

There could be no better current actor to play Jo than Saoirse Ronan, who is equally biting, funny, and warm. She has several monologues about the confines of being a woman, but it never feels like preaching, or too modern as to be an anachronism. Timothée Chalamet is ideal for Laurie — beautiful, self-absorbed, and infuriatingly charming. While watching the movie, I wrote in my notes that I wished I could be vaccinated against his charms, but I know that's a pipe dream. Chalamet and Ronan have such palpable chemistry, not just as an almost-couple, but as lifelong best friends, which is even trickier to master. 

The film flashes between two periods, the humble utopia of the March home when it's full of teen girls on the brink of discovery, and the slightly harsher reality of adulthood. The past is full of brightness; orange leaves during fall, crisp white snow during Christmas, a sepia-toned trip to the beach for summer. Years later, when Beth is dying, none of the colors are as bright. 

Occasional deaths and personal struggles aside, the March family live an aspirational life. They all have big, good hearts. They are lucky to know rich and generous people. They have big dreams, many of which are fulfilled. The film ends on an idyllic picnic scene, with all the family gathered for a party. It feels odd, sometimes, to have such a beautiful movie set in the middle of the Civil War, but as acknowledged in the film, Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women in a way that her publisher believed would sell, which includes relatable hardship, but hope, and a happy ending too. The stories Alcott told and the way Gerwig interprets them are true to anyone who's had or been a sister, or a woman, or a writer, or a mother, or has taken any of these things as seriously as Alcott did.

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