“I want to be great, or nothing.” This defining line from Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women has become a catchphrase of American literary feminism, repeated out of context, embroidered onto pillows, and championed nearly to the point of losing all meaning.
The sentiment, first delivered by Alcott’s Amy March in regards to her skills at a painter, rings particularly hollow when you consider its place in the countless film, television, and stage adaptations of Little Women that have come since its first publication. These retellings, like so many adaptations of classic novels, have rarely striven for that artistic greatness Amy speaks of—they’ve by and large been pale, sentimental imitations of what a great story looks like, designed to print cash and appease the period piece crowd, i.e. women. Aside from Gillian Armstrong’s hit 1994 film, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Little Women as vital as the original.
That is, until Greta Gerwig came along. The writer-director behind Lady Bird and Frances Ha has been emphasizing the value in quotidian stories about young women throughout her short filmmaking career, and her talents and interests have found a perfect home in Little Women. Lively, ambitious, and deftly directed, Gerwig’s adaptation takes both its subjects and audience seriously, building its own kind of greatness that extends far beyond the power of the original text. It doesn’t attempt to overwrite Alcott’s story with modern feminism, but rather highlight how the joys and struggles of her characters have persisted across time. Filled out by an exhilarating ensemble cast, Gerwig’s Little Women is the best we’ve ever seen this story—and it’s one of the best films of the year.
Part of the film’s success comes from its fresh approach to the traditional narrative structure of the novel. Rather than following the March sisters from childhood, we open on our heroine Jo (Saoirse Ronan) as an adult, living in New York and trying to sell her stories to a curmudgeonly publisher (Tracy Letts, another frequent Gerwig collaborator). She strikes up a friendship with the quiet and discerning Professor Bhaer (a very French Louis Garrel), but she’s not open to his criticism of her work—Ronan’s Jo is self-involved to a fault, and exceptionally, accurately mean when she’d like to be.
The film then checks in on how the other March sisters are coping post-childhood. Now married with children, eldest sister Meg (Emma Watson) is eking out a living back home in Massachusetts, ambivalent about the happiness she’s found. Timid middle child Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is content to live at home with her generous mother Marmie (Laura Dern), but her delicate health is worsening, sending panic through the family. And yet nobody wants to worry youngest sister Amy (a marvelous Florence Pugh), who’s traveling throughout France with her Great Aunt March (Meryl Streep, completely phoning it in) to improve her French, refine her painting skills, and secure a respectable husband. Such are the choices these women face: marriage, loneliness, or death.
By beginning in adulthood and periodically flashing back to scenes of the girls’ childhood, the entire film is imbued with a sharp, poignant longing, nostalgia that’s as painful as it is rose-colored. Meg struggling to pay for dress fabric as an adult cuts to her nervous excitement at her coming out ball—Amy running into Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) in Paris cuts to Jo meeting him for the first time. This structure wouldn’t succeed without the dynamic editing of Nick Houy (also the editor on Lady Bird). Although very occasionally difficult to follow, this editing creates fresh connections between different parts of the material and lends a powerful grace to the film’s most serious moments. Gerwig and Huoy are concerned with how the ambition of young girls is so readily quashed as they age into women, and this is apparent in every frame.
That’s not to say Little Women is somber, however. For all its nostalgia and loss, it’s incredibly warm and joyful, thanks in large part to the bubbling chemistry of its actors. Ronan is a pitch-perfect Jo, with enough determination and self-interest to make her frustrating—and who but Timothée Chalamet could be her Laurie? His energetic, physical performance as the rich boy next door suits the character well, and his sad-boy longing makes him the perfect audience stand-in—he wants nothing more than to join the March sisters on their adventures. It’s a joy to see Laura Dern and Bob Odenkirk (playing the girls’ father) pop up periodically, even if Dern’s modern face announces she knows what a cellphone is. And although they don’t deliver standout performances, both Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen hold their own against an intimidating cast as the quieter of the Marches. The four sisters, fighting and laughing and babbling over one another, are a force strong enough to move mountains.
The star of the show, however, is no one but Florence Pugh. Gerwig’s adaptation may be the first to take Amy seriously, and Pugh delivers the one-two performance needed to seal the deal. Impatient, lovely, and laugh-out-loud funny as a girl and absolutely cutting as an adult, Pugh’s Amy is a new take on what it means to be a heroine, the perfect complement to Ronan’s headstrong Jo. Whether she’s whining about pickled limes or making the exaggerated sad face last seen in Midsommar, Pugh steals every scene she’s in—and she deserves the recognition.
For all its strengths—and there are many—it’s unlikely Little Women will turn the period-piece-averse into superfans overnight. There is the requisite letter burning and wartime backdrop, a single black character who tells Marmie she should “still be ashamed of her country,” and a twinkling, string-heavy score from Alexandre Desplat that all fit firmly into the existing canon of these kind of adaptations. Yet those who enter the film with a closed mind would be doing themselves a disservice. With Little Women, Gerwig opens the door into a new way of thinking about a classic work. You’d be wise to walk through.