Little Women (*****) paddle their own canoe

Little Women – 2019

Written and Directed by Greta Gerwig
Based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Chris Cooper

Josephine March’s (Ronan) one true talent, a genius really, is not an easy sell for a woman in her time. She’s a writer during a time when women are not expected to make their own way. She is ill tempered and insistent on being accepted on her own terms in the world. In the midst of the Civil War, there are few options for most people in the northern United States. The best a woman could be expected to do is marry well and raise children.

Jo is not having any of that, in fact it is hard for her to understand why any woman would. This story is as much about Joan’s sisters Meg (Watson), Beth (Scanlen) and Amy (Pugh) very different paths as it is about Joan’s onward march to express herself.

Being poor plays a large part of the story of Little Women. It guides each of the girls decisions at times. Meg marries for love despite this. Her decision further pushes Jo away from the prospects of love with Teddy (Chalamet) who pines for her after he’s turned away. Beth is the one dedicated to helping both her family and that of those poorer than the March family. Amy is at first the brat of the family, she is also a painter and very practical. The development of her character is based on a jealousy of Jo being the first love of Teddy, but it doesn’t end there.

There have been many versions of this story. I have only ever seen the 2017 BBC version, though I have owned the 1994 Winona Ryder version forever. My wife never liked the story, basically because she, like many readers, never liked Amy. Everyone should see this version, if none other.

The key asset this story has is the concise storytelling ability of Greta Gerwig. She’s able to condense the story to its bare elements without losing any of the character development of the four girls, but most particularly Jo and Amy.

The acting of Ronan and Pugh is as nuanced as anything I have seen this year. Ronan has been a sure thing for over a decade now. She understands that her character, heroic as she seems, is so obsessed with rising above her poverty and her station, she may be missing something more important. It doesn’t help that her publisher (the incredible Letts) insists that the heroines in her stories either marry or die by the last act.

Amy as portrayed by Pugh, takes a remarkable journey. She moves from a petulant girl who does something horrible to Jo into a cultured woman in Europe. She understands that her talent is not equal to that of those painting she sees while abroad. Or her sister’s skill for writing stories that help pay the family bills. Pugh is fantastic at showing Amy’s growth in a subtle, yet direct fashion.

Gerwig makes some brilliant editing choices in weaving the story back and forth between time periods. The effect can be dizzying, but it is well done. It helps to make the case extremely clear when we see one version of each as a girl, then see the corresponding scene as a woman. As great as Lady Bird is, this story as Gerwig has shaped it may just be better. There is little denying Gerwig is one of the best directors of our time.

The best thing about Gerwig is her ability to take a pronounced story about the value of women and make it more about the development of the characters than overcoming obstacles presented by others. The latter is the easy way. It’s not much to relate to: women good, men and tradition bad. Gerwig is wiser than this. She knows the relatability of the characters is what makes Little Women the classic literature it is considered. Everyone can relate to these characters, as women and men. The situations presented allow Alcott, then Gerwig, the opportunity to see the quality of each character as they overcome external and internal challenges life presents.

There are so many moments that inspire tears in Little Women. These tears are happy as well as sad. They are a reminder that life is short and it’s the quality of life that matters. In controlling their reactions to challenges, Jo and their sisters begin to own their stories. It’s our luck that they allowed us to share in the glory of their lives. This is one of the year’s best.

(***** out of *****)

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