I needed this. I really did.
I’ve long held a quiet love for Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel Little Women. When you come across something so sincere and dignified at such a young age the story will command your attention far into your later years. My true introduction to it all was the 1994 Gillian Armstrong adaptation of the book, one that would introduce me to several phenomenal performers and the music of Thomas Newman, and it remains a favorite film of mine to this day. A year ago the internet informed me that fresh face Greta Gerwig was teaming back up with Saoirse Ronen to tackle a new adaptation and my heart leapt nearly out of my chest. Lady Bird is one of the best directorial debuts I’ve seen in ages, something I find so very personal and loving that it broke my heart. It scares me when someone bursts out of the gate with such openness; I worry that their sincerity won’t be met with love. Gerwig scored, though, and she was able to use that attention to cash in so that she could make this film. I’ve been clamoring to see this ever since they announced it, and each new piece of information felt ridiculous as I already wanted to see it. The wait is, I’m happy to say, something I’d deem “worth it.”
Little Women tells the story of Jo March (Saoirse Ronen), sister to Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and daughter to Marmee March (Laura Dern). This is a group of very earnest women, wearing their unique traits on their sleeves and showing an adorable amount of passion for each other even in moments of anger or ire. Jo is progressive and nontraditional, Meg is torn between the societal pressures that she wants to adhere to while quietly harboring a desire to be an actress, Amy is spoiled and obnoxious but sincerely artistic, and Beth is just freaking adorably shy. From the outset there’s very little conflict, and that’s some of the charm. It always has been, frankly, going back to novel itself. Will Jo fall in love with her best friend, good ol’ Teddy Laurence (Timothée Chalamet) from next door? Will Meg ever get to enjoy the finer things, or will she find happiness in her domestic life? Can Beth beat her bout with scarlet fever?
That last one is actually the driving force of the film. While there are plenty of small, interpersonal dramas going on, Beth’s personality and illness are the emotional lifeblood of the film. The little ways she influences everyone around her is played so quietly and beautifully. Saoirse Ronen is the star of the film, but Eliza Scanlen is its main event. Teddy’s grandfather, known only as Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), is brought from depressed, simmering anger to bright joy and smiles. There’s a moment, where he quietly hints to the family that his dead daughter’s piano just sits in the house unused and hopes one of them will stop by to play, that contains such a sweetness to it. The payoff, when Beth sneaks into the house to play with such mousy timidity that the audience collectively sighed “aww,” is equally lovely. But that, dear friends, is followed by what I consider to be the most beautiful moment in the film, where crotchety old Mr. Laurence sneaks down the stairs to listen to Beth play and begins crying, lost in memories of his daughter. I lost it myself.
Gerwig pulls our hearstrings over and over with things like this. Little Women is perfectly balanced, with joys and sorrows mixed together to make a lovely little soup. There are some moments that will elicit tears (I nearly grabbed the hand of the elderly woman next to me because we were both crying pretty hard) and those that will elicit earnest laughter, and many within seconds of each other. Instead of whiplash, like most other films would give you, it feels like a life lived. That’s the way Little Women is structured, meant to purposefully feel like the ups and downs of domestic life put together as a message about living life with love and sincerity.
Gerwig also brings to the forefront another message from Alcott’s novel. In an age where extremist politics rule, it’s going to offend many people that there is such a feminist message in this. We’ll hear a lot of “not muh Little Women” in the coming weeks, but the book was always a statement about the status of women in the 19th Century version America; how they struggled financially, how marriage was economic, and how the pressures of society took away from opportunities they might otherwise be afforded. This is wonderfully blatant in this new adaptation, never pushy but constantly present, and I really love that aspect of it. I dig when someone wants to mine source material for something big to bring to the table, and Greta Gerwig didn’t exactly have to dig deep.
I’ve been putting off discussing the score for a reason – I’m embarrassed that I didn’t realize Alexandre Desplat did this one. I love that dude, follow his work with regularity, and this somehow slipped by me. I was planning on researching the composer after I got out of the film because that thing is an absolute banger, gorgeous to listen to on its own, but sitting in the credits and finding out Desplat did it crystalized it in my head that this film was, indeed, created in a lab by scientists purely for my enjoyment. Hot damn, I love this movie.
It’s wonderful, at the end of the year, to have this last sweet thing come out for the world to enjoy. I’ve loved this story for so long, and to see it treated with such loving respect made my heart happy. It’s been a stressful year for me, and to have something like this where I get to laugh and cry and feel just made me smile. Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is an absolute triumph, a beautiful reminder that the things in life to cherish are family (whether by blood or a family you’ve chosen), respect, and most importantly love.