Review: Little Women

And the Oscar goes to… Bob Odenkirk’s sideburns!


Ok, maybe that one is less of a lock than the many other awards season accolades this film will surely collect over the next two months, but it’s one of the costume choices I really enjoyed.


There’s a lot to love about this film! It is very, very pleasing to watch because Greta Gerwig and her cast clearly love the material so very much. It feels like a passion project. More than anything, it is an earnest movie, filled with the most wholesome sincerity. This works mainly because it has one of the best top-down casts of any movie this year. Saoirse Ronan was born to play the role of Jo March, even if she does struggle here and there with the clunky dialogue. Emma Watson’s eyes and facial expressions are a beautiful window into the soul of this loving family. Then there are the doting adults in Odenkirk, a grace-filled Laura Dern and Chris Cooper, and a stuffy Meryl Streep doing her persnickety grandma bit that I’m afraid is now bordering on self-parody. (Whatever. It’s still impossible not to like.) Everyone’s having a good time. Even Eliza Scanlen shimmers, given the least-heralded role, but she touches it with just the right amount of care in a character that could have been overplayed and melodramatic. The love interests (Timothee Chalamet chief among them) aren’t given a ton to do, and that actually works to the film’s benefit.


Then there’s Florence Pugh. What a year she’s having! Of all the performances, hers is perhaps the most joyful to watch. She has impeccable comedic timing and she plays Amy with an infectious blend of impudence and precociousness. During the busy ensemble scenes, I found myself following her the most.


Throughout, these beautiful people just clearly want us to believe that, not only do the characters love each other, but they the actors loved being together. They want us to think they had a great time making this movie. We’re meant to feel like we’re part of this struggling crew: a poor mom and her four talented daughters with a father off at war, living in the shadow of a rich aunt, a kindly old gentleman, and his impish son. If I over-rely on words like “joyful”, “lovely”, and “delightful” as descriptors, it’s because Gerwig is such a master at creating a consistent and delightful tone. This was the high point of Lady Bird as well.


She and her production team do a nice job giving us a tour of 19th century New England: tiny farmhouses, tiny churches, cute shops, trips to the shores, snowfall on Massachusetts pines, autumn foliage lit up by the fading sun. They actually filmed it in Concord and it shows. For that reason – and so you can see every thread on the impeccable costumes – you should absolutely rush to see it on a big screen. This is not a Redbox movie!


Overall, this movie desperately wants us to think it’s about adaptation: book to screen, girlhood to adulthood, young love to old love, joy to grief and back to joy again – the opening scene is even a mean publisher (Traci Letts, is that you?!) cynically editing one of Jo’s stories (how dare that cynical presence impinge on our sincere family! How dare he!). But it doesn’t quite pull this off. The girls don’t really grow or adapt so much as waltz through episodes as children then very similar episodes again as adults. And the movie is bookended with a similar scene with the publisher that gives the story a tired “it all happened inside my snowglobe” feeling. It’s an unfortunate foray into well-worn territory.


Unfortunately – and this is tied to the editing problems – I take issue with Gerwig’s choice to time-jump between the girls as young adults and the girls as young women. For much of the movie, I found myself questioning the underlying purpose of the choice. Other reviewers have pointed out that it helps emphasize Jo’s career as a writer, keeping the movie from being fixated on her relationship with Laurie, and rightly so. But it eventually becomes so rapid it’s confusing. I ultimately felt like it was uncreative and demonstrated a lack of trust in the audience. Couldn’t they have accomplished the same thing in a linear fashion? It helps that the childhood scenes are shot with bright orange and yellow hues, while the adult ones are drab blues and grays, but even this is eventually abandoned. No fewer than three times, I wondered when we were. At one point, a character went to New York then back to Massachusetts in under a minute, or at least it looked like she did. By the time we got to the ending, I was convinced the film’s construction was way too cute and pushed the work into the twee zone.


Now I’ve never read the book and I barely remember the old movie, but this storytelling technique doesn’t happen in either, I’m told. The people I was with seriously doubted that someone without prior knowledge of the story would be able to follow it. I wish it had been a more successful choice, I really do.


Fortunately, even the bad editing can’t undo the magic of when all the girls are in the same room, bantering and bickering with youthful glee. Pugh and Ronan are the glue in those scenes, and Gerwig gives them just the right amount of room to play off each other. Ronan and Dern each make the screen resonate with emotionally vibrant monologues that brought me to tears. While it’s not a movie about adaptation, it mostly succeeds as a movie about loving things well, and it’s clear that Gerwig has loved this story very well: from the costumes to the scenery to the cast to Alexandre Desplat’s period music, this is sincerely a happy little film. I just wish I could have seen it in a linear fashion without all those pesky time jumps.