This re-imagining of the classic tale tells the story of the March sisters – four young women each determined to live life on their own terms. This story has been adapted plenty before, but be careful before you can pass on it just for that. Greta Gerwig, who made her transition to the director’s chair with the universally beloved Lady Bird, once again proves her directing skills and breathes energy and light into the screen. The gorgeous production value always stands out, as the costumes and sets are colorful, but the cinematography enhances the beauty to the eye, and this visual appeal combined with Alexandre Desplat’s ambient score makes for an engaging theater experience. However, what truly makes this film resonate is its cast of characters, played by A-list names including some who have worked with Gerwig in the past. Saoirse Ronan, beautifully embodying the soul that is Jo March in every moment on the screen, graps the film and the audiences in her hands with a charming, humane, and poignant performance, rivaling her terrific turn in Gerwig’s previous film, as well as being deserving of awards buzz. The camera beautifully captures every expression of hers and it’s hard not to fall in love with Jo’s ambition, playfulness, and spirit. But she’s not the only performer who steals the screen. It really has been the year of Florence Pugh — this his her third role in 2019 in which she’s really shone as a leading part, and although it’s not as excellent as her gut-punching role in Midsommar, her performance as Amy packs plenty of dimension and ferocity, and every instance with her on screen belongs to her. Amy is sweet and vengeful, tough and vulnerable, and realistically human above all — often she longs to be independent yet sometimes her emotions get in the way of that. Laura Dern also stands out as Marmee, the selfless and loving mother of the girls, in a touching and later heartbreaking performance that’s even more hard-hitting than her much-talked about Marriage Story role. Marmee continuously displays endurance through hardships and role model-like behavior to her daughters on how to behave towards others and themselves. A few actors, like Emma Watson and Timothee Chalamet, just feel like themselves for the majority, but Chalamet has an excellent scene in the latter half of the film in which he really impresses. Meryl Streep also makes the best of her appearance as a judgmental and scene-stealing Aunt March, and Chris Cooper also shows up as a more likable and lighthearted character than his typical role.
Little Women packs a strong punch with its actors and its glamorous prestige, but occasionally loses itself along the journey. This is due to the fact that the movie has many themes going for it, but a few important ones feel too underutilized and weren’t focused on enough. The movie is about female independence (expectations of women vs. their own desires), “owning your story” — literally so in the case of Jo wanting to publish her book yet continuously being asked to make changes to the female character’s journey (making the plot feel very meta in that way), and sisterhood and familial love. Regrettably, these themes didn’t really get the strong focus they deserve, instead only addresses in throwaway lines that are powerfully acted but sometimes out of place in the context of a scene. There’s even a few plot instances that contradict the moving messages the film may have been trying to say — most notably, I found the film in its core to actually be about life and the flow of time, as the movie depicts its protagonists growing up into “little women” (hence the title), and adjusting to change, including travel, passion, and heartbreak. So how ironic that even the center force of the script gets undercut by Gerwig’s choice to tell the story in non-linear fashion, and ultimately the jumps in time feel unnecessary and take away from what could’ve been a beautiful Boyhood-like “lifelike flow” to the runtime. This is why, in the first act of the film, a couple of moments just feel like a compilation of sequences rather than one overarching premise. Thankfully, the second half is especially emotional and memorable in the delivery of its messages and dialogue, but often it feels like the actors and director empowering the script which would’ve felt unpolished on its own.
Little Women would’ve been even more fantastic if not for its nonlinear narrative and a few script choices that feel rushed or untrue to the bigger picture, yet still resonates because of the characters, who so magically embody the hearts of what feel like real people, so sensibly livened by the ensemble cast. The visual appeal’s only there to accompany this already vigorous premise, proving that some stories may really be timeless, even though the runtime drags in the beginning and a few major themes are muddled by a few decisions Gerwig makes. Still though, if this is where Gerwig is after only two directorial works, then I solemnly request that she never stop making films.