The movie scene these days is dominated by large action franchises: Marvel’s endless superhero crossovers and trilogy after trilogy of “Star Wars” films, sprinkled with the occasional live-action remakes of nostalgic Disney movies. It makes sense that less attention is given to a humble movie about the domestic lives of four imperfectly wonderful young women growing up around the time of the Civil War. That inattention is wildly undeserved.
A masterfully strung together coming-of-age story, “Little Women” perfectly argues for the importance and power of stories about women.
“Little Women” as we know it today was originally published as a two-volume novel by Louisa May Alcott in 1969, and describes the small mischiefs and trifles the March sisters get into throughout their childhoods and early adult lives. The four sisters, Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth, all struggle with different things: Meg wants to be accepted by high society, Jo finds it hard to control her anger, Amy wants the best of life and Beth is exceedingly shy. Jo perhaps receives the most attention as an ambitious would-be writer. The stories are simple and sweet at first glance, but build into an overall struggle to find what is worth loving and giving your life to.
The movie’s format was in itself an underlying strength. The novel was written in two volumes, one of childhood and one of young adulthood. The movie jumps back and forth between these two halves, from character to character and from story to story. Through this back and forth, the film makes connections between beginnings and endings, struggles and learning, failures and triumphs. By making all of these connections, simple stories become more intricate and therefore more interesting. There were times when this format became a little confusing, but overall, this decision made small events more important by comparison.
Aside from the story and content itself, the movie was also improved by the score and the casting. The score made every moment intense, and reached into your heart. Casting choices were nearly all well-matched.
Saoirse Ronan played Jo in all her boyish glory, encapsulating Jo’s rambunctious individualism and sensitive heart at the same time. Emma Watson as Meg was a safe choice, but a good one, fitting the responsible yet silly character well. Florence Pugh was a fun choice for Amy — pretty, energetic and perfectly hungry for love and attention. Eliza Scanlon wasn’t given much of a chance to really shine, as Beth’s role was somewhat shoehorned into purely that of a dying girl, but she performed the part admirably. Timothée Chalamet was as carelessly gorgeous, obnoxious and lovable as Laurie appears in the novel. The most disappointing performance was Laura Dern’s depiction of Marmie, who should be humble and comforting and wise, and rather came off as adult and awkward.
The age of the actresses for the March sisters was, for a moment, confounding and almost became a weakness for the film. The girls are meant to be spaced apart in age, and much younger. It was somewhat ridiculous to see the 29-year-old Watson dressing up for childish plays and voicing her opinion on clubhouse decisions, but the energy between the four young women made up for this seeming contradiction. They seemed like the chaotic family they were supposed to be, even if they were acting below their ages.
Another win for the movie is its flawless reminder that, although this is a story from the 19th century, it is being told in the 21st. Although Jo is perhaps the most obviously feminist character, with her rejection of all things girlish, her boisterous friendship with the boy next door and her refusal to fall in love, characters all around snuck in small comments about women’s worth, marriage as a necessarily economic problem and continued issues of race.
The film was also given a huge boost by perhaps the most satisfying decision director Greta Gerwig made: The ambiguity of Jo’s marital status. Whereas the novel leaves many readers feeling cheated and confused when Jo marries after claiming she never could, the movie answers the question of why. Not because Alcott wanted her married, but because publishers demand it, as they demanded Jo add a man to her own novel. The audience left the theater asking themselves what was real and what wasn’t, the truth being that it didn’t matter. Maybe Jo found love and married, maybe it was a lie to sell a book. The point is that she needed to lie to sell her book, again turning the movie into a progressive argument.
Jo’s book is perhaps the most powerful message of the entire movie, and what makes it such a masterpiece. Her loneliness, emotion and total breakdown as Ronan portrays them are incredibly visceral. The audience is shocked and devastated by her seemingly unfeminist honesty, and yet at the same time, it’s relatable. We know how she feels.
And we want to make up for it as she makes up for it. She channels all of this emotion into her book. The scenes of her writing obsessively by candlelight, with pages spread across the floor make us feel something. The cinematography makes this moment even more powerful.
In real life, Alcott’s male publisher didn’t want to invest in a book about women, but when his nieces found it and wanted to read more, he conceded. The same thing happens to Jo in the movie, proving the stories of women mean something to other women.
Although the movie is not perfect, it is powerful. It reminds us with almost scary intensity that we want to feel things and we want our lives to mean something, and it does all of this by sharing the relatively unremarkable stories of a relatively normal family. Yes, they are ridiculous and unapologetic and pious, but we want to see ourselves in them. Alcott’s story is emboldened by the actors, cinematography, music and format into a tale that says something both new and old to audiences today.
Alex Houdeshell is the managing editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.