Little Women casts a spell. If you ever read Louisa May Alcott’s novel, you have a favorite March sister, one whose characteristics you relate to the most, or wish you could be. Watching writer-director Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Little Women, that feeling still percolates, but with generous balance. Meg, Jo, Amy, Beth, and their mom, Marmee, each get their due in this evergreen coming-of-age story, but so do the men, audience surrogates themselves enchanted with the family’s warmth, laughter, and relatable struggles.
Gerwig, nominated for an Oscar for her 2017 directorial debut Lady Bird, heightens the societal aspects of Alcott’s 1868 and 1869 story, not just the gatherings but the economic hardships. The sisters and Marmee (Laura Dern, Marriage Story) live in genteel poverty in Massachusetts while their father is away during the Civil War. They have a decent roof over their heads and a servant who’s like family, but they’re barely ahead of the poorer families whom Marmee feels compelled to help. Their wealthy Aunt March (a sharp Meryl Streep) and others in society also pressure the sisters to respect their station and marry well. Love is a luxury. So is making your way in the world, because a woman in this period was considered property.
Jo (Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird), the protagonist and writer in the family, rails against this, even as she’s disappointed at being a girl because she wants to join her father on the battlefield. Ronan captures Jo’s flinty temperament, hand-waving at proper manners, independence, and exuberance at seeing her words, any words, on the page.
“If the main character’s a girl, make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead. It’s all the same,” says an editor (Tracy Letts, Ford v. Ferrari) of the stories she submits. A bit on the nose, perhaps, as is Jo’s frustration and anger over how women have ambitions and desires beyond just falling in love. Yet considering when Alcott lived—and the narrow mindsets of some viewers and creatives even nowadays—it bears repeating.
In Gerwig’s witty and layered script, there’s more to Jo than just being a hothead. She gets lonely, too, but being with someone for the wrong reasons feels like too much of a compromise. (“I like being loved,” she confides to her mom at one point. “That’s not the same thing,” Marmee wisely replies.)
The other sisters have a range of depth and dimension as well, with dreams that might be at odds with each other’s but whom Gerwig shows all have worth. Meg (Emma Watson, Beauty and the Beast), the oldest, knows she should be responsible but delights in any splurge where money isn’t a worry. Beth (Eliza Scanlen, TV’s Sharp Objects), the youngest, tends to come across as the wispiest on the page, sickly and saintly. Here, she’s the one who most wants to be like her mom and inspires Jo to do better.
Amy (Florence Pugh, Midsommar), the other middle sister, is the biggest revelation. The one with artistic flair, Amy can be the sister whom fans most love to hate, a petulant brat who, as Jo says, has a talent at getting out of the hard parts of life. But through Pugh, she blossoms. Pugh portrays Amy as a teen with every emotion on her face, then a young woman who holds that guile at bay, revealing her feelings and her smarts around the people she trusts the most.
Those are her sisters and mother, of course, as well as the men in their lives. Timothée Chalamet (Lady Bird) and Chris Cooper (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), as neighbors Theodore “Laurie” Laurence and his grandfather, melt the most around the sisters, but their charisma also proves infectious to James Norton (Flatliners), a tutor who becomes Meg’s suitor, and Louis Garrel (An Officer and a Spy) as Friedrich Bhaer, a friend whose honesty Jo finds annoying because it stings. Bob Odenkirk (TV’s Better Call Saul) rounds out the cast as Mr. March, whose affectionate nickname for his four daughters gives Little Women its title.
Little Women has come to the screen before (about seven other TV and film versions since 1918). But this film’s generosity toward these characters, well-rounded performances, and modern spirit make for an inspiring update. It has such verve, humor, and emotion, it’s a delight that tempts viewers, like the March family’s visitors, to linger in their world for a while.