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The newest film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, makes a nuanced case for the ways stories enrich an individual’s experience of the world, and how sharing them is central to one’s interpersonal livelihood. Alcott and her iconic protagonist Jo March are examples of women who, to paraphrase Hélène Cixous, write themselves into the world as a personal and political act of creativity. The book has been brought to the screen numerous times before, most memorably by director Gillian Armstrong and screenwriter Robin Swicord in 1994. Compared to its predecessors, this Little Women attends more to the pain of writing, and with Jo’s arc, it subtly comments on a writer’s subject position and ego. It is not another weary reboot.
The movie pulsates with exuberance drawn from the family-focused vignettes that structure the novel. The bustling 1860s Concord home of the March sisters — Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and Amy (Florence Pugh) — is once again teeming with activity. The men in their community, particularly Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), are overwhelmed by their ferocity of spirit, and look upon their strong-willed closeness with wonder that tips into envy. While earlier interpretations center Jo’s coming-of-age and neglect other characters, Gerwig cuts open the seams of Alcott’s work to accommodate all the March sisters as they navigate the complexities of a social order defined for them by class and gender.
As with any good adaptation, Gerwig uncovers new textures for its familiar characters. Jo (previously embodied by the likes of Winona Ryder and Katharine Hepburn) is still the theatrical, impassioned writer whose potent sense of self sits in defiance of the status quo. Here, however, we’re shown a more humanized, less tenaciously energetic Jo, who is sometimes worn down by what she’s up against. In one scene, she delivers a forceful argument about the complexities of women, and how their talents are reduced and blunted by marriage. Then she crumples, confessing loneliness and lamenting the evaporation of sororal solidarity she found in childhood. Other characters also gain new dimensions. Amy blossoms from reactionary villain to a thoughtful observer and keen strategist. Meg and Marmee (Laura Dern) aren’t purely maternal saints. Aunt March (Meryl Streep), while still funny, is no longer an antagonistic caricature.
While the book’s politics are limited by its period, Little Women remains relevant for its capacity to evoke the vigour of adolescent feelings. It makes sense that this would appeal to Gerwig, a filmmaker so committed to affect that it has nearly become her trademark. Her earlier works, like Lady Bird (2017), Mistress America (2015), and Frances Ha (2012) are similarly about women negotiating the largeness of their ambitions, and each contain a warmth, tenderness, and optimism which endear viewers to their protagonists. While Gerwig’s films can edge toward a constructed quality associated with treacly white hipster twee-ness. they also contain keen insight into the experiences of their characters. Little Women hangs on to this heartfelt nature, but pushes it toward a deeper vision that loosens her usual attachment to a specific individual. Her script remixes the linear progression of Alcott’s novel that other adaptations adhered to, creating a more impressionistic portrait of family life which eschews the cliché that coming of age is a straightforward path. The characters’ intense emotions find formal expression in cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s merging of body and surrounding. His camera tracks the movement of characters as they rush through crowds, dance in secret, or leap off carriages.
Little Women is primarily considered as a celebration of sisterhood, but this film is equally about the painful moments in which we reckon with ourselves alone. In Lady Bird and Frances Ha, this took shape as revelatory moments of self-discovery (Lady Bird’s hungover voicemail, Frances writing her name on a new apartment). Little Women doesn’t sacrifice the March sisters’ shared intimacy, but it gives each sibling a private individuality that previous renditions haven’t explored. The generally optimistic Marmee wipes away tears as she approaches the family home on Christmas morning. Meg considers a marital fight in the dimming candlelight of her sparse new home. Amy stoically decides to throw away her paintings. After her raw rejection of Laurie, Jo crouches on a rust-colored hillside, nearly blending in with the landscape. Beth, so often defined by her sickness, shyness, and eventual death, is given a rich inner life. While the other sisters are married or away in New York and Europe, she remains home and finds a unique intergenerational friendship with Mr. Laurence. All these images of solitude culminate in a poignant final shot of Jo alone, clutching her newly published book.
There’s an unintended but notable parallel here, potentially a problematic one. Jo, originally Alcott’s semiautobiographical cipher, might now be seen as another refraction of Gerwig’s own semiautobiographical flourishes. Writing was Alcott’s act of autonomy, a way of preserving herself through observation and imagination. As Gerwig establishes herself as an auteur, are the stakes as high for her? Perhaps questions about biography, which is grating in Gerwig’s films but also lends them their vulnerability, are less relevant here. After all, what’s enjoyable about this version of Little Women is its fusion of solitude and warmth — the pleasures found in the company of others, and the vitality of keeping one’s own.
Little Women is in theaters now.
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