Film adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel reflect their decades. An air of making-do with genteel poverty suffuses George Cukor’s 1933 Depression-era version starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo March. The air of a proficient radio show melodrama characterizes the credible 1949 version directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Gilliam Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation glows as if the four sisters stoked a fire in their hearts. Not for Greta Gerwig gentility or stoicism. In the writer-director’s telling, the March sisters rush pell-mell through rooms and across each other’s sentences; the camera and editing can hardly keep up. It took a half hour to adjust to its rhythms before this Little Women charmed the hell out of me. It makes you work, like a worthwhile relationship.
As much as Gerwig’s version emphasizes the warmth of sibling bonds, it also shows how artistic temperaments flourish. One of its first shots is a close-up of Jo’s ink-stained fingers. When one of the sisters mentions the Brontë sisters as examples of female writers “allowed into the club of genius,” it’s clear we’re meant to look at Jo (Saorise Ronan) and Amy (Florence Pugh) as their successors as novelist and painter, respectively. Moreover, the film begins with a shot of the novel that, in a gradual molting over the course of one hundred-thirty minutes, will replace Alcott’s name with Jo’s before the end credits. Sibling rivalry is also aesthetic agon: the fiery Jo, with a high opinion of herself as a budding writer, smolders when Aunt March (Meryl Streep) takes Amy to Europe as a companion instead. Not to be outdone, oldest and prettiest sister Meg (Emma Watson) acts in Jo’s little plays, unknowingly rehearsing for marriage. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) takes to the piano. Hovering over them is Teddy Laurence (Timothée Chalamet), in love with Jo but really in love with the March collective or an idea of Marchness. How refreshing to watch a film in which women understand courtship as a performance, with family as audience; in this Little Women, the girls laugh while the boys look stricken. “Amy has always had a talent for getting out of the hard parts of life,” Jo observes — a line true about three of the March sisters, poor doomed Beth excepted. Having her own reasons to lapse into frustration, Mother March (Laura Dern) offers advice and support while their father (Bob Odenkirk) fights in the Union army.
As she demonstrated in Lady Bird, Gerwig has eccentric ideas about continuity. Past and present collide; flashbacks comment on what the audience has seen. Kudos to Nick Houy, whose editing might have taken its cues from the rhythms of the sisters’ chatter. The actors keep us grounded. At this point in her career Saorise Ronan has made few bad choices. Summoning her considerable talent for invective and projecting empathy, she turns Jo into a heroine, liminal and of-the-moment. Florence Pugh, who’s had a helluva year, is her match as a young woman whose determination to step out of her sister’s shadow doesn’t quash her love. At first Timothée Chalamet looks too much of a pretty willow to play the dissipated Laurie, but as he demonstrated in Call Me By Your Name and Gerwig’s own Lady Bird his winking impishness sends a charge through the other players; when the next Little Women gets made in 2034 the actors will study Chalamet’s work here. In their slightly smaller roles Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen establish their characters in quick strokes. Even Meryl Streep shines, as is her wont in supporting roles, as the imperious Aunt March, bringing off a couple of acerbic line readings.
But of course Jo doesn’t remain unfulfilled. Like in the other adaptations, she attracts an older French professor she meets at a boarding house, here played by the crazy-beautiful Louis Garrel as if out of breath, while Laurie, tired of waiting, hooks up with Amy. A couple of Gerwig’s group shots in the movie’s remaining minutes suggest this group was born too soon: in the 1920s they might’ve swapped partners like they swap stories. But no one, Laurie and Professor Bhaer least of all, will touch her story. How can they — as the film’s conclusion shows, Jo’s folded them into it.