To offer any real criticism of Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig, would be to just nit-pick some minor details or issues. Overall, this film is an excellent work that creatively retells the classic story. It’s more than yet another adaptation of the book, and that’s where this film works the best.
Little Women follows Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) as she looks back on her life while wrestling with the challenges and changes of the present day. Although having grown up of modest means, Jo and her sisters, Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), lived their lives with joy, love, and a lot of learning. Youth, of course, wasn’t without its struggles, but the girls get by well enough. Their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), instills in her girls a sense of duty and compassion toward others. For a time, their father (Bob Odenkirk) is off fighting in the war and regularly writes home.
Next door lives Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), who quickly takes an interest in Jo and forms a love for her, in spite of her not wanting a relationship and openly expressing her desire to never marry. Laurie comes from great wealth and lives with his grandfather, Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), who also takes a great interest in the March family and forms a relationship with them.
As the girls and Laurie grow up, they live their lives to the fullest by having fun. They write and act out performances, play music, visit the sea, and fantasize about better lives. When they’re older, though, things aren’t as blissful as they remember their childhoods to be. Life is hard, and it comes with challenging obstacles to overcome.
What Greta Gerwig does here is incredibly smart, even genius. By crafting Little Women as a retrospective, a yearning for nostalgia, and the “good days,” we can see how these characters have grown and learned from their experiences and relationships with each other. Some of the events from the novel are rearranged to create a more steady flow with each scene, and it pays off.
Because this is something of a retrospective for Jo, we do see a back and forth between the past and present. In doing this, clear stylistic and cinematography choices were made to help the audience distinguish between what, and when, they’re watching. When everybody is younger, there is greater saturation, more color, and a lasting warmth to most of the scenes. When they’re older, the film is darker with muted colors and more blacks and grays.
The ensemble cast illuminates the screen with their talent and charisma, and they bring every character to life. Other members of the cast are Meryl Streep as Aunt March, Tracy Letts as Mr. Dashwood, James Norton as John Brooke, and Louis Garrel as Friedrich Bhaer.
Some critics of this adaptation have commented that it’s unlike the other Little Women films or that not everything that happens with this movie is exactly how the novel does it. That, in my opinion, is part of the beauty of Gerwig’s version. It isn’t more of the same, and it’s adapted for the modern-day, because the novel was, and still is, an incredibly modern and progressive piece of writing. The values of the book are on full display in this film adaptation, and the young cast is pivotal in ensuring this works.
As Greta Gerwig’s follow-up to Lady Bird, Little Women truly solidifies her as a director to be taken seriously. Gerwig has done an exemplary job in her directing, and it’s exciting to see where the rest of her career goes. Gerwig’s next announced project is Barbie (yes, Barbie) with Noah Baumbach on the screenplay, so that will undoubtedly be interesting to watch.