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Monday, January 20, 2020

Little Women

This review contains Spoilers.

What's that you say? Another adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel about four sisters and their lives, loves, and trials living in Massachusetts during the Civil War? Does the world really need another of these, you ask? Perhaps not need. But with writer/director Greta Gerwig infusing her cheerful passion into the tale, filling it to bursting with on-screen talent, and pulling its timeless appeal out into the wide open again, the world is better off for this new version's existence, and that's more than reason enough for me.

Some stories are good enough to bear repeating.

But I'm not here to convince myself its worth existing and worth watching. I've already been convinced. So, what are the appeals of this adaptation that make it stand out? Most obviously, the way it's structured, which creates a different light from which familiar viewers may see the story. It runs two plot threads simultaneously: One starting at the beginning of the story, and the other starting while Jo (Saoirse Ronan) lives as a writer and teacher in New York. The past and future interweaves together and is often match-cut together to draw parallels between moments that we might not noticed in a straightforward narrative.

While it might make the story harder to follow for unfamiliar viewers, this structure was for me, one of the film's greatest strengths because of how it allowed us to view the characters. For instance, we are told almost immediately that Jo turns down the March Family's neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) when he proposes. This takes away romantic tension from their early friendship but builds tension in other, new places, like if they can still be friends at all, or allows us to focus on Laurie's relationship with Amy (Florence Pugh) instead. We see Amy grown and refined side-by-side with her younger, wilder, brattier version, and it make me connect with the character in a way I never have before.

I always thought of Amy as the lesser March sister. Here she's second only to Jo. 

Before, I hated Amy for burning Jo's book, and it takes so long for her to mature that I'm unable to forgive her even once she does. Here we see her sensible, matured self first, and then go back to see how she grew to that place. Suddenly I engaged completely with her. It's not that the character is different, but the film is intentional about how we see her. Same goes for Meg (Emma Watson), who we see declare to Jo on her wedding day that she wants to work and struggle in love with Mr. Brooke (James Norton) -- and we feel the impact of that declaration because we have already seen what she will go through. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) doesn't exit the story at her death, but still has her most endearing moments to come. And Jo...

Obviously Jo is the main character, and the movie wants to serve her with its structure most, but at the same time I have the least to say about her arc specifically. Not that I didn't connect with it or her -- I did, in strong and personal ways -- but more because she and her journey is so much wrapped up in the journey of the film as a whole; I'm having a hard time separating the two. For me, the whole film was about the balance between love for family, pursuit of success, and desire for deeper companionship. Love, love. And through the film Jo slowly learns that she doesn't need to sacrifice the former two in order to have the latter.

The dynamic between Jo and Laurie was done perfectly. You sense the deep care between them, but also recognize the lack of romantic love.

Frustrated and beat down, Jo rants about how she is sick of being told that love is all a woman is good for, and she ends her impassioned speech with a brutally honest admission: despite her great ambition, she is lonely. Enter Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), who's probably my favorite thing the restructuring influenced. Because of his early presence he never feels like an afterthought or last resort over being a spinster. We don't get hung up on Jo with Laurie, because Friedrich is there "before" Laurie, constantly waiting with patience and hope. So when the movie ends, it is equally as satisfying on romantic grounds as it is in the more material triumph of its leading lady.

We know as soon as Bhaer is honest in his criticism of Jo's writing that he is the perfect match for her, and are allowed to revel in the development that leads her to the same conclusion. That also frees up the romantic melodrama tendency so that the film can hone in on Jo's writing and devotion to her family with equal fervor, and it all comes together into a perfectly balanced portrait of happiness. The joy of loving and being near your family, the immense satisfaction of realized ambition, and the thrilling sense of completion that comes from loving someone who loves you. Yes, women are fit for more than love: but man or woman, love is a great thing.

The greatest thing of all, you might say.

That's the particular reason I loved this adaptation. Beyond that, it's wonderfully assembled all-around. The acting was remarkably good, and the characterization endearing, even beyond the core cast. Florence Pugh was a standout for me, but Saoirse Ronan's work is always exceptional. The costumes, sets, and all the period aspects are delightful, and Greta Gerwig inserts her sharp charm into the writing and tone. There's a playful, casual, and familiar sense to it all that is rich and welcoming. Little Women is a great story, retold here with passion, love, and dedication, to entertaining, moving, and meaningful results. I can think of no better reason for a film to exist.

2 comments:

  1. This movie was so good! And on my word, this is an excellent review! I think that the 1994 version will always be my favorite because of nostalgic reasons, but this was a wonderful way to tell the charming story and I look forward to rewatching it a lot.

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    1. Yes I agree! Thank you so much! That's great -- I think this one will be my favorite now, but I really like how this one doesn't render the others irrelevant.

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