At a time when Hollywood’s idea of feminism largely consists of depicting women blowing things up just as good as men in lackluster franchise sequels and remakes, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s classic 19th-century novel about the lives of four sisters during the Civil War, could be considered daring, even transgressive. But that depends on the perceived sensibility and politics of the source material, which, even when considering the conventions of the era in which it was written, often tends toward the saccharine and moralizing. It also depends on the perceived necessity of yet another version of a classic that’s been adapted more than a dozen times for the screen.
Gerwig’s major gambit is to tell Alcott’s story out of chronological order so that events shuttle between the present and past. This approach allows us to better understand Jo (Saoirse Ronan), the second oldest of the March family and, as a tomboy and ambitious writer, the most fiercely independent. Alcott wrote her novel as a roman à clef, with Jo as a stand-in for herself, and Gerwig has decided to make Jo the character whose associational memories guide most of the narrative. As Jo looks back upon her life with nostalgia, sadness, disillusionment, and gratitude, Ronan conveys deep wells of unspoken feeling. Jo’s relationship with each sister—especially in her rivalry with Amy (Florence Rugh)—is realized in the detail of her responses. Her unfulfilled romance with childhood friend Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) is heartbreaking due to Ronan’s ability to simultaneously show what her character thinks she wants (the artistic life) and what she tries to convince herself into thinking is unnecessary (love).
Yet the nonlinear structure also makes watching this adaptation enervating, as almost every scene becomes, through the storminess of Jo’s recollections, a barnburner. At one point toward the end of the film, Jo remembers her father (Bob Odenkirk) returning from his pastor work on the battlefield to an emotional welcome from his family. Moments later, we return to the present, where Jo learns that Beth (Eliza Scanlen), her shy second-youngest sister, has died, and a few moments after that Jo remembers the wedding of her eldest sister, Meg (Emma Watson), where Laurie proposes to Jo. These events unfold over the course of roughly five minutes, and that’s not enough screen time for each to communicate its full emotional weight.
More than that, individual scenes are set to the rhythm of the young women’s conversations, which at times approach Gilmore Girls-level warp speed. The flashbacks capture the giddiness and excitement of young womanhood as well as the effervescence of the Marches’ warm and playful household—fully realized by Jess Gonchor’s lived-in production design and Yorick Le Saux’s lustrous cinematography—but Gerwig also cuts scenes to the same clip as their dialogue when lengthier takes and wider shots would have sufficed to depict the characters’ interactions as unified, spontaneous actions. Whenever the film slows down, viewers receive a glimpse of how Little Women might have flowed as a whole, with greater patience for the passage of time and respect for the significance of the moment. When Jo declines Laurie’s proposal, or when Meg tells her husband, John (James Norton), that he—not his meager salary—is enough to make her happy, Gerwig allows the moments to completely resonate.
A few of those moments belong to Laura Dern as the March materfamilias (nicknamed Marmee) and Meryl Streep as the sisters’ cantankerous Aunt March, and both provide a counterweight of gravity whenever the proceedings threaten to become just a little too light. There’s a wonderful scene where Marmee explains to Jo that she carries an anger inside her every day that she puts aside so as to support the family, and Dern communicates the intensity of that daily struggle without a shred of melodrama or self-pity. Aunt March, meanwhile, continually reminds her nieces of the harsh reality that without marrying a wealthy man their adult lives will be exceedingly rough. Streep could have easily portrayed her character as a cartoonish, old-fashioned biddy but instead imbues her with a resigned sadness.
Perhaps the most interesting decision Gerwig has made in her adaptation is to create a meta conclusion that qualifies Alcott’s original ending—in which Jo marries an older man (Louis Garrel)—by explaining the social and financial pressures that forced Alcott to write it that way. It’s a clever trick that honors Alcott while pushing the socio-historical context of her novel to the fore. In fact, there might have been even more commentary in this vein: Perhaps that would have been too experimental for such a mainstream film, but it might have also allowed Gerwig to explore other contradictions and conflicts of Alcott’s story, which at times deeply interrogates the social and sexual conventions of her era and at times takes them for granted.