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Non-Review Review: Little Women (2019)

Little Women is immensely charming and highly engaging.

As is the style of the time, writer and director Greta Gerwig offers something of a “remix” of Louisa May Alcott’s classic American novel. It’s an approach that infuses the film with an appealing poppy sensibility, as the story weaves through time and navigates on theme more than plot. It tells a story of the lives of the four March sisters as they journey from their teenage years into adulthood, wrestling with all the opportunities and challenges that such an adventure offers them.

Come what Chalamet.

Little Women works well for a number of reasons. The most obvious reason is the immensely talented cast. Gerwig reunites with a number of cast members from Lady Bird on Little Women, including Saoirse Ronan in the lead role and supporting turns from both Tracy Letts and Timothée Chalamet. These veterans team up with some of the most charismatic actors working today, including players like Meryl Streep, Laura Dern and Bob Odenkirk. The restructuring of the film plays to the strength of the cast, Gerwig effectively reworking the text as a hangout movie with some pretty cool people.

That said, there is an uncomfortable tension that simmers in the background of the film, in which two of its central themes collide in ways that the movie isn’t quite able to handle.

Women during war.

Little Women has a lot to recommend it. As with Lady Bird, it is very much positioned as a coming of age story centred on young women. Indeed, despite the status of Little Women as an American classic, women have often been marginalised in such stories and their perspectives downplayed. This why films like Lady Bird and Booksmart felt as fresh as they did, offering a long-overdue update to the familiar template. At its heart, Little Women is the story of four young women who each take different paths towards adulthood.

The bulk of the film’s attention is focused on Jo, the sister played by Saoirse Ronan. This makes sense; Jo is the story’s narrator and Ronan is one of the strongest performers. It’s Jo’s journey which forms the spine of the story, with particular emphasis placed on her desire to remain independent and her desire to become an artist. The film is framed as – much as the book often is – as a semi-autobiographical novel. In fact, Gerwig repeatedly pulls in elements from outside the novel itself to underscore the way in which Jo was an authorial stand-in for Alcott herself.

However, the breakout performance in the film comes from Florence Pugh as Amy. Despite the fact that Jo is the film (and novel’s) central character, it is Amy who has the film’s strongest arc. She journeys from being a spoiled child to serving as the family anchor, maturing in ways that nobody could have anticipated. The structure of the film is designed to emphasise this growth, juxtaposing Amy’s childish temper tantrums and spiteful behaviour with her more refined and restrained conduct as an adult in Paris. Pugh is phenomenal in the role, capable of playing all the subtle variations that it requires.

That said, the film does struggle with the other two sisters. This is less of a problem with Beth, given that her narrative function in the story is to serve as a lynchpin that holds the rest together. It is a slight problem with Meg, as played by Emma Watson. Meg is a character who is much more conventional than Jo or Amy, and so the film seems appreciably less interested in her. There’s something awkward in the film’s attitude towards Meg, whose greatest moment of crisis involves a scene in which she buys some nice fabric for herself and then sells it back off-screen to balance the family budget.

Watson your mind?

This gets at the tension within Little Women. The film makes several strong and repeated arguments about the need to respect women and their choices. Much is made of the argument that marriage is an “economic proposition”, with both Jo and Amy pressured to marry in order to preserve their family’s economic status. The film quite rightly celebrates Jo’s decision not to marry for money, supporting her desire to remain independent and to enjoy her own freedom. However, the film struggles to amount a similar enthusiasm for Meg’s decision to marry for love.

There’s an awkward sense that Little Women is less invested in Meg’s life because her choices don’t align with the movie’s ideals of what a woman’s life should be. Meg gets a scene in which she argues that her choice to get married is as valid as Jo’s choice to remain single, but the film never invests the same enthusiasm or energy in Meg’s life as it does in Jo’s. Indeed, the decision to focus the action in Meg’s storyline around an economic proposition like buying a nice dress for herself seems to suggest that Meg’s choice to marry for love is somehow worse than either not marrying at all or marrying for money.

This awkward tension comes to a head at the climax of the story. So much of Little Women is given over to the argument that the choices that women make need to be respected and that – in particular – the art that they produce deserves to be respected. At one point, Theodore Laurence and Amy March debate the way in which the canon of “genius” has been reserved almost exclusively for male artists, give or take the Brontës. Jo aspires to be a writer and Amy is a gifted painter, and the film repeatedly demonstrates how hard it is for women to express themselves.

Of course, there is something awkward in the way in which Little Women repeatedly underscores how important it is for the women to express themselves by having the male characters helpfully explain this to them and encourage them. Jo learns that she needs to write from her own experience after getting a stern critique from Friedrich Bhaer about how the work that she is selling to the papers is “terrible.” Meg tries to blend in at a social function, accepting an affectionate nickname of “Daisy”, only for Laurence to chide her for it. Amy considers marrying for money, until Laurence shows up and convinces her not to.

It’s all about Amy.

To be fair, Little Women casts Laurence in a role that might be described as a “manic pixie dream boy”, a gender-swapped update of an outmoded twenty-first century cliché. Chalamet does good work in the role, and it’s a clever twist on the standard structure and format of these sorts of stories. Laurence is a mess of a human being, but there is some wisdom buried beneath his foppish and irrational exterior. Indeed, Little Women quite rightly makes the point that he has the freedom to indulge these impulses because he was born a man. As a man, society is infinitely more likely to indulge his whims and eccentricities.

However, there is still something just a little odd in the way that men like Bhaer and Laurence serve as guiding lights for the sisters around them, telling them things that they don’t necessarily want to hear but that they perhaps need to hear. It’s an awkward ideal of empowerment, the central characters encouraged to be themselves so long as they have the stamp of approval of supporting male characters around them. It’s a strange dynamic in a film that is otherwise so assertive in granting its central characters agency and autonomy.

The issue becomes particularly complicated at the climax, when Jo tries to sell her story to a publisher. The film has repeatedly stressed the importance of respecting art produced by women and the choices made by women. As such, it seems logical that Little Women would build to a climax between Jo and her publisher over the final fate of her protagonist. Again, Gerwig is drawing from real-life here, reflecting Alcott’s own ambivalence towards her choice to marry off the character of Jo at the climax of the book’s sequel, Little Wives. (The book is often published as part of Little Women, although not as often in the U.K.)

Little Wives remains a source of controversy for modern fans of Little Women. It is notable, for example, that the title of the sequel was selected by the publisher rather than by Alcott herself. More than that, the sequel exists primarily to marry off the lead characters, which undercuts a lot of the appeal of the first book’s drama and character work. Indeed, it seems likely that at least part of Gerwig’s decision to restructure the story was down to a desire to avoid such a sharp pivot from Little Women into Little Wives. Allowing the two books to flow into one another helps defuse the tension between them.

Sailing through life.

Little Women presents the marriage as a narrative choice forced on Jo by a blowhard publisher. As such, it presents the movie’s ambivalence on the point as a justified rejection of patriarchal authority. In reality, the situation is somewhat more complicated. Alcott didn’t originally want to marry Jo off, but she was motivated to make the decision by letters from women who had read the first book and demanded to know who Jo was going to marry. Alcott had considerable disdain for these fans – offhandedly dismissing them as “infants” – but did eventually decide to write the ending in the book.

This is more complicated and nuanced than the climax presented in Little Women. In some ways, this historical revisionism recalls similar efforts in Green Book, a desire to reduce a complicated and possibly uncomfortable dynamic down to a simple feel-good narrative that will resonate with contemporary audiences. It is much better to think of Little Women granting Alcott a delayed victory against patriarchal oppression than it is to acknowledge that she made a calculated decision based on the wishes expressed by a largely female fandom who had long been starved of literature reflecting their desires.

Little Women spends a lot of very earnest and very valid feminist assertions. “I just feel like women, they have minds and they have souls, as well as just hearts,” Jo insists to Marmee at one point. “And they’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty.” It is sad that this still needs be argued so bluntly, but there are still people who need to hear that. Jo’s frustrations are real and sincere, and they speak to a desperate yearning that deserves to be articulated. However, there is also a sense that Little Women is packaging a very simply feminist ideal, which doesn’t account for the complexity of the human condition.

This gets at the awkwardness at the heart of Little Women. As much as the film argues for respecting the desires and choices of women, especially in the creation of art and the fulfillment of desire, it also makes a conscious point to heavily revise and rewrite the choice made by the woman who wrote the source material. During her argument with the cynical publisher, Jo makes a principled choice to retain the copyright on her book. She retains control of her characters, refusing to let them be used by other authors in sequels or derivative works that might take ownership away from her.

Ready to move on to the next stage.

To be clear, none of this is to argue that Gerwig was wrong or unreasonable to make this choice. There is an obligation on every storyteller updating a classic text to make the work their own, and an onus on every retelling of a classic story to speak to the current moment as much as its original context. Gerwig is entirely correct to offer her own interpretation of Little Women, to make the story her own. Her decision to “remix” the narrative is inspired, and her desire to use the movie to speak to a modern audience is welcome.

However, the dissonance arises when Gerwig does that while also attempting to sell Little Women as a story about respecting and celebrating the choices and decisions that women make. Throughout its runtime, Little Women argues that women need the autonomy to make their own choices and the work that women do should be respected. The film brushes up against a problem when the character (or the author or even the original fans) made choices with which the film itself doesn’t agree. This may also explain the film’s lack of interest in Meg. It’s a tension within the film that Gerwig never manages to resolve.

To be fair, quite apart from this sizable paradox at the heart of the adaptation, it’s heard not to get swept up in Little Women. Despite Gerwig’s background as a director heavily influenced by the slice-of-life cinema of Noah Baumbach or Woody Allen, she adjusts very well to the film’s period settings. Indeed, the most awkward passages of Little Women are those which seem consciously designed to play to modern sensibilities; the way in which Jo’s verbal tics are presented as goofy teenage catchphrases, the gif-ready moments of the cast rocking out unseen, the ironic and self-aware cuts.

In contrast, Little Women is at its strongest when Gerwig embraces the grand scope of these lives unfolding against the backdrop of a tumultuous era. As with Jordan Peele’s work on Us following Get Out, it occasionally feels like Little Women is designed to showcase Gerwig as a director as much as a writer. There are some wonderful and emotive shots in Little Women that capture the weight of the material: Jo and Beth silently sitting on the sea shore as the sands of time blow by, Fred kneeling down to propose to Amy beneath the canopy in Paris as seen with cold distance.

Still life.

There is also something to be said for the way in which – largely due to its non-linear structure – the film is able to luxuriate in its cast and their chemistry. Without a clear linear narrative that might serve to focus the plot and drive the narrative, Little Women becomes a series of episodic encounters connected by theme. To be entirely fair, this choice does lead to some minor problems, such as the rather conspicuous absence of a character during early scenes set in the framing device in order to preserve the surprise around his fate during the flashback scenes. However, it also pays dividends in other instances.

This is most obvious in the decision to reveal that Jo rejected Laurence’s marriage proposal long before the audience sees him make the proposal, which helps to prevent the audience from fixating on their potential romance to the extent that the original readers might have. Gerwig cannily telegraphs the ending of their relationship in such a way as to frame the story as a non-romance. It is a very savvy choice that foregrounds Gerwig’s themes so that even the most romantic ally-minded audience member doesn’t feel wrong-footed by how it plays out.

It also allows for clever juxtapositions to underscore how some things inevitably change, and also to showcase the way in which some things remain constant. Beth’s separate bouts of major illness are crosscut against one another, with Gerwig very cannily using small cues like hair styles to help guide the audience through the transitions. These crosscut sequences also build to a truly devastating emotional pay-off. It’s really effective storytelling that understands that the internal mechanics of cinema are as rooted in emotion as in narrative.

More than that, it also encourages the audience to simply enjoy the company of these characters and this cast. Gerwig has assembled an impressive ensemble who clearly enjoy one another’s company and relish the opportunity to bounce off one another. Many of the most charming sequences in Little Women consist of the characters just lounging around and doing nothing – rehearsing a stage play, bantering in the living room, waiting for the arrival of Marmee so that breakfast can begin. Little Women understands the passage of time, and so also the value of it spent in the company of good people.

It’s about family.

Little Women is a solid piece of work, even if it’s a lot thornier and more complicate than it would like to be. Little Women never quite resolves its own internal paradoxes, and suffers from the sense that it has a very specific vision of womanhood that it tries to apply to a story about very different women, but it has enough charm and personality that this never becomes a fatal flaw.

2 Responses

  1. I’m actually kind of relieved to hear there’s not a lot of Meg because I still hate Emma Watson’s casting in this, but I can’t wait to see Florence specifically after hearing all the praise she’s getting.

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