Little women, walking down the street. Little women, bonding with their sisters but also struggling to establish their individual identities in order to find a path in life that brings them happiness
In her joyous new version of LITTLE WOMEN, writer/director Greta Gerwig (LADYBUGS) cleverly acknowledges that the book by Louisa May Alcott may be more appealing to (or more understood by) women than men. When freelance writer Jo (Saoirse Ronan, HANNA) sends stories about her and her sisters to her publisher (Tracy Letts, U.S. MARSHALS) he snidely dismisses them… until his daughters find the manuscript and freak out like it’s a new Twilight. The scene is inspired by reality: Alcott and her publisher didn’t really believe in her work-in-progress until the publisher’s niece read it and loved it.
What I’m saying is not that I, as a male individual, don’t get the appeal of this movie. I loved it. But Little Women is a “girl story” I never knew to open myself up to. I had never read or seen it, not even when it had Winona Ryder in it. I only did it this time because I loved Gerwig’s first film as a director, LADY BIRD (she didn’t direct LADYBUGS, I don’t know why I said that a paragraph ago, but it seemed amusing at the time).
I guess it’s not new for a LITTLE WOMEN to have a ridiculously stacked cast. That Winona one from ’94 also had Samantha Mathis, Kirsten Dunst and Claire Danes. The ’49 version backed up June Allyson and Margaret O’Brien with Elizabeth Taylor and Janet Leigh. And Roger Corman’s post-apocalyptic version from ’87 teamed Sybil Danning, Linnea Quigley, Lucinda Dickey and Fred Williamson as “WarLaurd.”
I wish. Sorry. That’s not real. Therefore the best LITTLE WOMEN cast yet is this one. Alongside Ronan you have Emma Watson (of the Harry Potter pictures) as the most domestic sister, Meg, Florence Pugh (deservingly Oscar-nominated for this and might as well have been for MIDSOMMAR too) as the painter sister Amy. The only sister-actor I wasn’t familiar with was Eliza Scanlen (apparently she was on Sharp Objects) as Beth, the most moral and compassionate of the sisters, who also plays piano. And you have Laura Dern (A PERFECT WORLD) as their mom, called Marmee, Meryl Streep (RICKI AND THE FLASH) as their snotty rich Aunt March, and Timothee Chalamet (HOSTILES) as Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, a rich boy from across the street who they sort of grow up with. And Chris Cooper (MONEY TRAIN) as his grandpa, in one of those rare roles where he never turns out to be an asshole even though he’s played by Chris Cooper, and it makes it even more heartwarming. His neighborly friendship with Beth, who reminds him of a deceased granddaughter, is one of the most touching things in the movie.
There is a surplus of emotion, but it doesn’t feel like a heavy movie, because it’s not just about sad things. It’s about everything: Leaving home, coming home, escaping your family, missing your family, loneliness, love, charity, poor people, rich people, sickness, loss, struggle, success, art, commerce, independence, individuality, belonging, comfort, rivalry, making up, copyright… everything. (Except kickboxing.) I like that Jo and Amy both have a different art that they’re pursuing as a career, Beth has one that she just does as a hobby that makes herself and others happy, and Meg doesn’t have any talents like that and is genuinely happy in the sort of child-bearing life that Jo says is demeaning. These are not the only paths, but it’s a wider representation than you usually get.
These little women seem to thrive while the big patriarchy is looking in the other direction. Like THE BEGUILED, but totally different, it’s about the mostly female world that exists while men are off fighting the civil war. That’s where their dad (Bob Odenkirk, THE POST) is, anyway. Laurie and his grandpa have different pursuits. In a mansion. That may be why they’re not off at war.
Chalamet really makes this character work – he seems pretty full of himself, and careless about charming more than one of the sisters, but he still comes off very likable, especially after the scene where he joins their all-woman club in the attic and has them all in stitches. In Gerwig’s non-linear structure we meet him as a guy who has recently been rejected by Jo, but who Amy is absolutely ecstatic to run into in Paris. When Aunt March grumbles about it, Amy says, “But it’s Laurie!”
It’s clear just from her three words there that Amy is in love with him, even though she doesn’t admit it until much later. But Jo does seem like she’s in love with him, and she’s the center of the movie – or maybe it just seems that way to me because I’m a “Jo” (sources: PBS, Buzzfeed, Zimbio). The Ronan/Gerwig team continue in the vein of LADY BIRD with a captivating and layered character who can be a little mean and totally lovable, who you can both laugh at and be inspired by. She’s constantly straining against the limitations put on her life: leaving home for New York City, getting herself over with the snotty publisher, passionately voicing her frustrations with the expectations for women to center their lives around finding a man, when she believes both herself and her characters are capable of more.
Jo is a girl power icon, but not an overly idealized one – she can be wrong, and her self esteem has limits. I love when she sends in her manuscript with a letter about how it’s probly not any good. You laugh and then you want to give her a pep talk. She doesn’t put her name on her stories, saying her mother wouldn’t approve of her being a writer. I wondered about that. That doesn’t sound like the Marmee I know.
A quintessentially Jo act is when she cuts her hair short. She sells it to make money to pay for a doctor for her sister, but it just so happens that it makes her look cool and non-conformist. Two birds with one stone. By the way, I was really impressed that costume designer Jacqueline Durran (TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) was able to make costumes that seem in keeping with the period but also make Jo seem cool and different. Kind of the 1860s version of Lady Bird’s thrift store fashion. Her sisters have big wide gowns and she has narrow skirts with jackets and bows, frumpier colors, goofy hats, sometimes more masculine, sometimes looking kind of like Maria in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. In New York she wears a bowler hat and a tie.
I don’t think I would’ve thought this before LADY BIRD, but I wonder when the ceremony will take place to honor Ronan as this generation’s Winona – she who emanates a vibrant, intelligent personality, relatable but outsider, rejecting what she feels society has prescribed for her.
Little Women the book was semi-autobiographical, with Jo as Alcott’s stand-in, so in the movie Jo is straight up writing the book Little Women. I like that we not only see her write it and see the finished book (which opens the movie with Alcott’s name on the cover and ends with Jo’s), we even witness the pages being printed, cut, and bound. It’s beautiful. I can tell you as an author that seeing and holding in your hand a book that is the result of your hard work is an amazing feeling of pride. But damn, I need to do one of those stitched-together-by-hand, embossed and (p)leatherbound ones! That must be even better!
This LITTLE WOMEN is appealing in the straightforward way of characters you love going through dramatic events and life changes together and trying to find happiness. But I think the meta aspect adds something extra. It allows for an interpretation that part of the happy ending didn’t “really” happen, if you think it goes against Jo’s values for falling for a dude to be her happily ever after. (Man, I could’ve used one of those on WING CHUN.) The book was originally published in installments, and Alcott hadn’t wanted Jo to get married, but according to what I’ve read she got so many letters from young readers about her getting married that she gave them what they wanted while sort of messing with them. This pays tribute to her original instincts, and the fact that she never married, sometimes joking (?) that she had “a man’s soul” and had “fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.”
And much like DOLEMITE IS MY NAME, the movie very organically tips its hat to the value of representation. Jo – like Alcott, like Gerwig – brings her experiences and world view to her stories, and it’s obvious that she has a special connection with girls and women if you look at the publisher’s daughters, or all the women gathered in the theater to see another version of a book and story many of them have grown up loving, fantasizing about having a bunch of sisters, or getting along so well with their sisters. And of course men can relate to many of the aspects of the characters, and experience things from their perspectives. Oh, my boys, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this movie! Or you might like it, anyway. It’s good.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.