This is it. This is the feeling I wish I could leave with every time I watch a new movie in theaters. I guess that wouldn’t make the feeling so special then, huh? So, I’ll just hold on to this for as long as I can. Watching Little Women (2019) yesterday in a packed theater while I get over this annoying cold was a moving experience with an epiphanic ending.
You know the story, from Louisa M. Alcott, that has been re-adapted again and again for television and film. Little Women is a story that follows four sisters- Amy, Jo, Beth, and Meg March- through Civil War-era America and their paths to womanhood. You may think, what does a story about 19th century women have that can relate to 21st century women? Well, that’s where Greta Gerwig (writer/director of Lady Bird (2018)) comes in- to bridge that gap between two centuries of ‘little women,’ growing up in two vastly different times. And in this way, I believe Gerwig and the cast of Little Women succeed while still solidifying and celebrating the beauty of the source material.
To recap on the characters, Saoirse Ronan plays Josephine ‘Jo’ March- a rambunctious and passionate writer with a temper. Florence Pugh plays the vain and irritatingly whiny sister, Amy March. Emma Watson is Meg, the eldest sister who is homely, old-fashioned, and much like the mother of the group. And Eliza Scanlen plays Beth March- the “good sister”- the sweetest and most timid younger sister. Together, the four sister live with their Mamie (Laura Dern) who always teaches them kindness, patience, and humility. The cast of this film works dashingly well-together. You would think that the four girls had grown up together, and Laura Dern comes off as the perfectly even-tempered 19th century mother- warm and soft as ever.
What Gerwig did with the sisters and distinct personalities felt prominent for their time but also our modern era. Each March sister has a specific talent in the arts, and they soon realize that it isn’t just a balancing act between being a respectable woman of the era and having ambitions that they are practicing, but it’s a choice between the two that has to be made. Greta Gerwig’s direction and screenplay was absolutely phenomenal. She plays this film like a paced book and a painting, all in one. The flashbacks make it feel like a painting, with no definitive beginning, middle, nor end- just memories and moments that paint a charming mirage of the lives of the March’s. But there is still a structured story being told, one where we see our sisters as young girls and then as young women in the end, finding their truths and places in the world around them. Gerwig also brings the audience closer to each sister. Each March sister has a feminine and deep complexity to their personality that allows for each of them to be relatable and loved by the audience. You are with Jo when she sells her stories, Beth when she thinks she’s playing the piano alone, Amy when she compares her art to the men in her class, and Meg when she deals with financial and domestic struggles of the modern woman. You get a sense of who they are together as a family but also alone as their own people, and you connect and empathize with every sister in different ways than before. Every performance serves their purpose, because very actor seems to understand who it is they’re trying to portray.
Gerwig’s integration of the suffragette and neo-feminism into the story made for moments that brought upon fits of tears and fists of solidarity in the quiet theater. Her pacing of the story stumbles a bit at the beginning with the time-jumps, but once it finds it’s footing those flashbacks work as catalysts for the burried emotions of the past and the melancholy that comes along with growing up and looking at that past. It is perfectly summated by a small line from Jo March- “I miss everything.” You can tell there are moments that Gerwig intended for the dialogue to be most impactful, and those moments, I believe, serve their purpose.
Which brings me to Jo. Jo March is the reason that I left the theater feeling the way that I did. You can tell this film was written by a once-lonely writer who knew the struggles of living in her own head for too long. Jo was fiery and imperfect in a perfectly relatable. Jo is a writer, but she’s also a sister, daughter, and a best friend who loves everyone with an impenetrable fierceness that she even puts up against the will of God. Her realities only make you love her more. As a writer, watching Jo lose and rediscover her inspiration for her passion felt like an ignition deep in the burrows of my own soul. As she stays up late writing and shaking her hand with diligent, yet perservered, pain from writing all night long, I looked back and thought of the long nights I spent in front of a computer screen, with burning eyeballs, a sore back, and stiff fingers, and I had the sense of unashamed urgency to find that pain again. Because with that pain came something beautiful, and Jo was my anecdotal reminder of that. And yes the story is slightly outdated, but Gerwig made it feel relevant in nuanced ways that resonated with me immensely.