Movie Review: Little Women (2019)

Little Women is the story of four sisters coming of age in Concord, MA during and after the Civil War. Meg, the oldest, wants for the finer things. Jo, the second oldest, wants to be loved. Amy, the third oldest, wants to be recognized and seen. Beth, the youngest, wants a life where she can create in peace. It stars Saoirse Ronan as Jo, Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, Eliza Scanlen as Beth, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep. It is written and directed by Greta Gerwig.


I never read the read the book Little Women. I got about ten minutes into the 1994 film before I couldn't stand the kind of elevated language a lot of modern adaptations of 19th Century novels employ. Yet, here, Greta Gerwig has written something so traditional, yet very modern and accessible. I related to each of these characters and their struggles, which is something at a distance in many of these adaptations. It's so very smart and the framing device of the time jump seven years before the story starts works well for me to mirror the events, the triumphs and the tragedies. I may not have stuck with it if it were a linear story. I also may not have stuck with it if I hadn't loved every character so much.


I especially loved and was so heartbroken by Laurie, played by Timothee Chalamet. This may be my favorite Chalamet performance because I have never related so hard to a character who falls so deeply into unrequited love. Our poor Laurie loves Jo so much and to love a person with passion and grand ambitions is to know you'll never be loved by them the way you want. I didn't even fault him when a man comes calling on Jo and he keeps asking in the background, "And who is this?" "Who are you again?" "How does Jo, know you?" Laurie, my friend, I feel you, like I feel everything in this film.


Little Women is so full of life. I love the way Gerwig handles the flashbacks in a warmer filter than she does the present. It shows the joys of that time so clearly and the struggles of the present in a way that the past struggles were always much sunnier in contrast. This is especially clear when someone close to the family gets sick. In the past they're full of solutions and possibilities, but in the present, there's nothing they can do, but wait. It's juxtaposed between a wedding and a funeral. It's so precise and the timing is so intricate that you can't imagine seeing those scenes play out in another way. Just as I will accept no other women in these roles in the eventual reimagining.


I know I usually pick out one performance to highlight, but this cast is phenomenal and if they didn't work, if they didn't have the chemistry, this film would have failed. I love that each of the leads gets her own storyline to shine in. Watching Emma Watson's Meg as she attempts to navigate society and then eschews all of it as she finds love. She struggles and she wants, but she's found a true partner in life and it makes sense that she would want to struggle with him. Then there's Eliza Scanlen's Beth who is shy, but develops a deep friendship with Mr. Lawrence, played exceedingly lovingly by Chris Cooper. Their bond is one of the most surprising and welcomed aspects of this story.


Of course, though, there's Saoirse Ronan's Jo who picks fights, accepts her lot as the "boy" of the group, has intense passions and great joys and wants the best for all of her sisters no matter what. Ronan shines best as she sits down with Marmee, played exquisitely by Laura Dern, and learns that the two of them are not so different. The two of them have a couple of these heart to hearts and each one strikes the perfect tone with the calm person who has been there and the person who can't see anything, but where she is and where she wants to be. It's a nuanced and staggeringly good lead performance.


Yet, Florence Pugh is the best of the bunch. She plays as close to an antagonist as this story can get. She's a stubborn brat who only wants to have what everyone else has and to be out of her sister Jo's shadow. Pugh imbues this performance with an incredible mix of innocence, worldliness, talent, and ire. She has a duality in the role she plays in the flashbacks and the role in the present day scenes. When she gets away from her family she seems to mature and it's that turn that makes the performance brilliant because you see the full breadth of this person in these seven years.


I could probably write out eight or ten more paragraphs on this film. It is stunning to see and welled up a great deal of emotion in me with every scene. It takes a certain bravery to adapt a classic and a great talent to make it look and feel so relevant. You need to see this movie. You need to experience this lively and lovely film.

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