Soul Sisters

Hannah Stamler on Greta Gerwig's Little Women (2019)

Greta Gerwig, Little Women, 2019, color, sound, 135 minutes. Meg March, Jo March, Amy March, Beth March (Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen).

GRETA GERWIG’S GREAT SUBJECT is the twilight of girlhood. She has become something like the patron saint of girls on the precipice, or, as Britney Spears put it twenty years ago, not-girls-not-yet-women. Her heroines, sharp and tender, find themselves caught between their past and future selves; they are consumed by the task of reconciling youthful hope with present realities, slouching toward some kind of self-actualization and away from adolescence, real or protracted.

In Frances Ha (2012) and Mistress America (2015), both cowritten by Gerwig, she plays an adrift twentysomething struggling to reorient her life in the wake of personal and professional disaster. Her loosely autobiographical directorial debut, Lady Bird (2017), stars Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a Sacramento high schooler at once resolved and quixotic. She spends her senior year longing for a sophisticate’s life on the East Coast, only to feel homesick and alienated after moving there for college.

Little Women, Gerwig’s newest film, sees the writer-director dive once more into the breach of late girlhood, this time by putting her spin on Louisa May Alcott’s classic bildungsroman recounting the lives of the March sisters in 1860s Concord, Massachusetts. The novel has been adapted for the big screen many times, most recently by Gillian Armstrong, whose beloved 1994 version features Winona Ryder as Jo, the brassy protagonist, softened with healthy dollops of schmaltz, and, most notably, by George Cukor, in the 1933 classic starring Katharine Hepburn, Queen of Brass, all swagger, swoon, and snarl. Never before, however, has the story been told with such narrative elasticity. Gerwig’s take stands out for its choppy, semi-inverted chronology, one decidedly more postmodern than nineteenth century in feel.

Greta Gerwig, Little Women, 2019, color, sound, 135 minutes. Jo March and Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence (Saoirse Ronan and Timothee Chalamet).

Unlike Armstrong or Cukor, who stay true to Alcott’s timeline, Gerwig begins in the middle of the narrative, depicting the second half of the story while weaving in scenes drawn from the first. We open on the March sisters in their late teens and early twenties. The women in question are no longer very little, and the Civil War that cast a shadow over their youth has ended. We find the eldest, Meg, searching for contentment in her new life as the wife of a poor tutor (James Norton). Played by Emma Watson, she is the picture of grace if not always the voice, her Yankee accent at times on the brink. Tomboyish Jo—Ronan, offering a perfect compromise between Ryder’s timidity and Hepburn’s ham—is in New York avoiding an unwanted marriage proposal from her best friend, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), and chasing after her dream of becoming a writer. Amy (Florence Pugh), the bratty baby, is in Europe to hone her painting skills and find a society husband. Only sweet, sickly Beth (Eliza Scanlen) remains at home, though she will soon depart on an adventure of a more permanent kind, as she learns to accept her slowly impending death, the consequence of childhood scarlet fever. As she says of her fate in one of Alcott’s most poetic lines, delivered with solemn elegance by Scanlen, who makes the most of Beth’s limited part: “It’s like the tide . . . When it turns, it goes slowly, but it can’t be stopped.”

To prevent the inevitable, to stall time or turn backward, is famously difficult. But in the hands of a nimble writer, time can be a malleable, slippery thing. Like Lady Bird, Little Women is a semi-autobiographical work—Alcott grew up in Concord with three sisters, and modeled Jo after herself—and we slowly discover that what we are watching is not Little Women, the final product, but something more like Little Women, the making of: Jo remembering the key moments of childhood that will, by the movie’s close, become the centerpiece of her first novel. Beth’s death, unfolding in real time, is bracketed by recollections of her in the full blush of health, and by a flashback to her fever. It was an illness Beth managed to overcome in the short term, and the triumph offered more years of cautious happiness for Jo’s favorite sister. But she is now unfortunately beyond saving, able to live again only in Jo’s mind and on the page.

The film’s temporal soup is Gerwig’s fantasy of Jo’s writing process, which stands in for Alcott’s own. As she conceives her novel, Jo, now eighteen, undergoes the same transition of Gerwig’s other subjects: recalling past desires and wishes, and reckoning with the disappointments and sacrifices that womanhood will entail. What is a memoir, after all, if not a fast track to self-knowledge—a roadmap of where one has been that is meant to illuminate where one ought to go next.

Where the movie chooses to avoid Alcott’s story in favor of an exploration of Jo’s writerly psyche, it can veer into confusion for those unfamiliar with the book. (Some viewers may want to brush up on the plot, or watch Armstrong’s or Cukor’s versions first.) But what it lacks in coherence it makes up for in pathos, capturing the essence of nostalgia to a tee. Gerwig turns Jo’s reminiscences into dreams—their edges dulled as if filtered through a Vaseline-covered lens. Gerwig filmed these sequences using warm tones, as if the characters were shot only under the sun or candlelight, in contrast to the harsher, at times almost fluorescent, illumination reserved for later moments. Even instances of sorrow, anger, and worry—Beth’s fever, Jo and Amy’s bitter quarrels, the difficulties of wartime scrimping—possess a beauty only available when viewing them retrospectively.

Greta Gerwig, Little Women, 2019, color, sound, 135 minutes. Marmee March (Laura Dern).

Gerwig has also pruned some of the stuffiness and moralizing of the novel, leaving us with a particularly romantic picture of the March youth (which, for all its fun, was chockful of sins and Sunday-school lessons). Pugh is wonderful as preteen Amy, pouting her way into our hearts, but avoids the irksome extremes of her literary twin—insufferably smug and selfish, redeemed only over many chapters and almost as many lectures from her sisters and Mrs. March, known affectionately as “Marmee.” In Gerwig’s adaptation, Marmee is played by Laura Dern and has been liberally sprinkled with some kind of Nor-Cal fairy dust. Despite her period costuming, she reads more hippie than preachy, refraining from excessive sermonizing and smiling amiably down on her brood’s mischief-making from behind loosely gathered wavy hair. This is a bit of a stretch from Alcott’s Marmee, who, while bordering on feminist in her encouragement of her daughters, was also given to sprouting priggish lines such as: “Work is wholesome, and there is plenty for everyone.” Jo’s reveries of mothers and daughters are calculated to appeal to audiences more conversant in the chirpy banter of Gilmore Girls than in the Protestant ethic.

But even these magical moments cannot last—Concord, after all, isn’t Neverland––a fact that makes them all the more delicious. The sisters will soon scatter, each to follow a different path. Jo recounts how Meg learns to love her place at the head of a poor household; how Beth gracefully passes on; and how Amy shelves her vanity, marrying Laurie in Jo’s place and conceding her fantasy of becoming a painter. “Talent isn’t genius, and no amount of energy can make it so,” she says, after seeing the great masters of Rome and Paris. “I want to be great, or nothing.”

Only Jo manages to realize her ambitions wholesale, becoming a writer and wiggling, Houdini-like, out of the marriage plot—Gerwig’s only major deviation from the book’s storyline and one that borrows from Alcott’s own life. (How exactly Gerwig achieves this is too clever to spoil.) Some compromises are not worth making; for some, “womanhood” is an enterprise that can be indefinitely postponed, or better yet, rescripted.

Little Women opens in US theaters on December 25.