Over 150 years since Louisa May Alcott's beloved "Little Women" was first published, filmmaker Greta Gerwig's sophomore effort makes the case that it's as relevant as ever. Despite those lofty goals, the "Lady Bird" director doesn't get heavy-handed or preachy in her affectionate look at the March sisters, who were always styled as very different versions of evolving womanhood, even way back in the mid-19th century. Instead, Gerwig's adaptation looks at the eponymous little women through ambitious storytelling techniques that modernize the book's timeless story in unexpected ways.
It's the same "Little Women" that has endured for centuries, given new life with an original narrative conceit, and a level of craftsmanship that's nothing short of stunning.
Watch the trailer of "Little Women" here
Picking up after the March girls' childhood has passed, Gerwig's take on the material is told mostly through the perspective of second eldest March sister Jo, first introduced as a struggling writer in New York City. Soon enough, Gerwig unspools her storytelling conceit, slipping between time and place, sister and sister, aided by editor Nick Houy, who cuts between scenes through brilliant transitions that will reward repeat viewings: As Jo mentions that her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) is in Paris, the story finds her there; a visit to eldest sister Meg (Emma Watson) ends with a fade that moves from the front door of her small house to the somewhat grander entryway of the March family abode, as the angelic Beth (Eliza Scanlen) wiles away her time, missing her sisters. There is no Jo without Amy, no Meg without Beth. Everything is connected or, at least, every March is connected, just as it should be.
Gerwig's elliptical storytelling weaves both past (seven years earlier) and (relative) present with ease — any confusion is swiftly cleared up through her use of different color palettes between the time periods, and occasionally, Jo's very different haircut — cutting more quickly, and nestling together more closely, as the emotion ramps up. It's all lightly framed by Jo's own attempts to spark up her writing career, one compelled by equal parts ambition and necessity.
Gerwig's interest in mining the economic concerns of the March family in a more complex way than other takes on the material inspires some of Ronan's best scenes, from the early elation she feels over selling a story to Letts' exacting Mr. Dashwood to a wrenching speech in which she unpacks both her terrible ambition and the horrible personal loneliness that it has cost her.
Eventually, Gerwig ramps up the crosscutting, weaving her time periods together during the film's emotional climax, as the movie illuminates the way memory and emotion can collapse into each other, the same story with different endings depending on what one wants from them. Alcott's story is bigger, better, and more heartbreaking because of it.
Despite Gerwig's ambitious reaches, "Little Women" still boasts all the classic scenes fans of the book require — Meg's curling accident, Amy's rash revenge on Jo, the wonderful gift of a piano — and they're so beautifully rendered, new audiences will adore them too. Gorgeous costumes from Jacqueline Durran and lived-in production design from Jess Gonchor only add to the immersive elements of the film.
"Little Women" isn't always perfect: A few line readings fall flat — whenever Watson slips out of her American accent, all bets are off — and a handful of characters aren't given nearly as much dimension as the sisters. Laura Dern's soft-hearted Marmee is almost too good to be believed, and Bob Odenkirk's boisterous initial introduction as the March family patriarch feels out of place .And yet Gerwig and her girls know the hearts and minds of the sisters through and through. "Little Women" is about them above all else.
Halfway through her novel, long before any happy endings or tied-up conclusions (of which Gerwig's film offers a handful, right alongside some compelling questions), Alcott pauses to celebrate a burst of surprising joy. "Now and then, in this workaday world, things do happen in the delightful storybook fashion, and what a comfort it is," the author wrote, as the March family celebrated a very special Christmas. Gerwig's "Little Women" offers its own delightful storybook polish, in its own unique terms, and what a comfort that is.