Gerwig's Adaptation Is as Irresistibly Charming as 'Little Women' Gets

The March sisters are as delightful as ever, if not somehow more so.

Little Women
Columbia Pictures

By no means do we need another cinematic rehash of Louisa May Alcott’s timeless novel Little Women, but it’s that very truth that makes Greta Gerwig’s fresh-yet-faithful adaptation dance with stunning vivacity. We didn’t need it until we did. And now that we have it, we’d be lost without it.

That’s rarely the case with remakes these days — most eject themselves from our memory within minutes of the credits rolling — but in the case of 2019’s Little Women, it adds up. Gerwig is a rarity in nearly every sense of her filmmaking craft. Whether in front of the camera or behind it, she conjures a holistic charm so magnetic you have to remind yourself to lean back in your seat every once in a while. 

Wildly enough, her version of the 1868 classic novel might be her most irresistible work yet, which is saying a lot for an accomplished actor’s second solo directorial effort and saying even more for her mastery with a pen and a camera, considering she opted to impart her charm to her subjects instead of appearing on screen.

Of course, it would be demeaning to suggest Gerwig’s pervasive charm is the only draw. It’s tonally foundational, but it’s hardly original — that label belongs to the non-linear storytelling mode Gerwig has chosen to employ. We begin closer to the end than the beginning and never settle into one section of the story. Gerwig and editor Nick Huoy chop up the plot so as to create a framework that allows narrative and thematic throughlines to interact with each other in ways they haven’t been able to in other versions: e.g. conflicts between Amy and Jo over time, the illnesses of Beth, and fiction vs. reality.

The immortalized tale of four sisters has developed a habit of being revitalized for new generations of viewers, but where oft-revamped tales like A Star Is Born are given contemporary makeovers, Little Women has always kept to its American Civil War setting, and Gerwig holds to that convention.

Each version is a temporal parallel to the others, however, as a timestamp of the era as reflected by the cast of beloved, burgeoning young stars. A culturally sensational Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Jean Parker, Frances Dee, and Douglass Montgomery once walked so that Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, Trini Alvarado, and Christian Bale could fly.

Now the latter have paved the way for a new ensemble to flourish: Saoirse Ronan is Jo, Emma Watson is Meg, Florence Pugh is Amy, Eliza Scanlen is Beth, and Timothée Chalamet is Laurie. It’s almost like it was dream-cast by the internet, especially with the reunion of two of 2019’s hottest stars in Ronan and Chalamet (whose first collaboration was in Gerwig’s debut, Ladybird, and whose third will be Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch in 2020).

It can’t be easy to add nuance to characters that have gotten A-list treatment on stage, TV, and film for decades, but none of these actors seem interested in easy performances, even among the no-less-impressive supporting cast made up of Laura Dern, Louis Garrel, Chris Cooper, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, and Meryl Streep. But, no matter how great they are, the show simply isn’t theirs to run.

It’s hard to say whether that honor goes chiefly to Ronan, Pugh, or Chalamet because they all deserve it equally. Perhaps it’s best to pull a Cady Heron and throw pieces of the crown to all three of them. Ronan deserves immense praise for her central performance as the invigorating, norm-rejecting sister who romanticizes about the success of future novels in hopes of financially supporting her mother, Marmee (Dern). Coming off of a starkly disparate role in Midsommar, Pugh’s portrayal of Amy as the fortified and persevering artist is jaunty, galvanizing, and radiant, as if she simply can’t let us go unriveted.

Chalamet’s performance as the neighborly Laurie is capital, as Jo would describe it. There’s a captivating bounce to it. He’s never standing still or speaking plainly. Instead, he’s wired with cute ticks, bewitching behavior, and sheer delight. Watson and Scanlen are terrific, as well (though it’s worth noting that between this and Babyteeth, Scanlen clearly drew the short stick in cinematic diseases this year). Moreover, all of them prove their unique ability to will a smile on viewers’ faces as readily as tears in their eyes. 

Alexandre Desplat’s more traditional score frames the everchanging emotional atmosphere of the film remarkably from scene to scene, piano brightening up the dining rooms and sullening the skies when necessary. Yorick Le Saux’s wondrous cinematography captures the glow of beachy light linens and warm, golden candlelight and everything in between, the film practically bathing in rich, natural environments for the girls to chat, play, squabble, cuddle, and cry in in equal measure. Gerwig’s screenplay is as tight as they come — on par with Sorkin’s words per minute — each girl owning a brisk, high-spirited wit that allows them to bark playfully back at one another without sparing a second of thought.

Gerwig’s March sisters match the spunk, spirit, and depth of their predecessors and capitalize on it with their own sense of unity. They’re tightly bound enough to seem like one single unit and fleshed out enough to remain irrevocably individual and independent. The Marches grow lovingly in a home brimming with caring hearts, fair minds, and beautiful things.

Their unity isn’t born out of imprisonment and survival. It’s simply a product of their healthy social, communal, and emotional environment, the kind in which a family can give away their own Christmas feast on Christmas morning at the drop of a hat and follow it up with a nice walk and some jovial banter only minutes later. And as hokey as that might sound, it isn’t. It’s born of genuine joy. The girls understand why they should be sharing their food with the hungry and they’re quite happy to if they can have a brief pause to pout first. The sincerity of it all has a boundless kinetic energy to it, tugging on heartstrings, pulling on laugh levers, or titillating you around every corner.

By the end, it’s like you’re watching your own family, invested in every little decision with your own concern or opinion, aware of flaws and beauties in abundance. It’s never devastating but very sad at times, making you want to wrap Amy, or Jo, or Beth, or Meg up as warmly as possible in hopes that you could bear some of their burden with grace. 

Gerwig always imbues light in tragedy not so as to distract from it, but to allow it to heal and grow. She gives everyone and every thought space to breathe, much like Marmee, whose humble, gentle, selfless, and soft-spoken aura creates a trend of maturity and human connection in her girls. Throughout the film, Jo makes it well-known that marriage is as cruel and abrupt an ending as death for some, and Gerwig allows that sentiment to flourish without incisively cutting down Meg, whose life dream takes on a much more traditional hue.

Perhaps that’s the greatest strength of Gerwig’s Little Women: it’s a story that encourages us to be exactly who we are and to love others in the same pursuit. Of course, that’s a supreme strength it shares with the rest of the iterations down to the original novel. That’s why we still delight in it 151 years later.

Luke bleeds film and music, got his master's in film & ethics at Duke, and thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or basketball.