Greta Gerwig crafted one of the decade’s most original coming-of-age movies with Ladybird. So, when it was announced that Gerwig’s next directorial outing would be Little Women, cinemagoers raised their eyebrows in skepticism and confusion. Louisa May Alcott’s novel is an irrefutable classic, but it’s also been adapted to the screen time after time. We even got a BBC miniseries starring Maya Hawke and Kathryn Newton just two years ago. As talented as Gerwig is, what can she bring to this story that hasn’t been done a dozen times already? Of course, many felt that same going into Joe Wright and Deborah Moggach’s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, which has since become the definitive version of Jane Austen’s most iconic novel. Likewise, Gerwig has not only made arguably the best interpretation of Little Women, but also the freshest.
Little Women is such a timeless story because the characters are surprisingly modern. While the story is set in the 1860s, we’ve all met contemporary women like the March sisters. Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is the most forward-thinking of the bunch, channeling all of her energy into writing without giving a second thought to marriage. Elder sister Meg (Emma Watson) is more open to a traditional life as a wife and mother, even if a few sacrifices will be made in the process. Spoiled sister Amy (Florence Pugh) has echoes of Scarlett O’Hara, pining over something simply because she can’t have it. Shy yet gifted Beth (Eliza Scanlen) may have the most to offer out of the four sisters, which makes it all the more tragic that she’s so introverted.
The titular “little women” couldn’t be more perfectly cast. Pugh is particular may be 2019’s breakthrough actress between her chilling work in Midsommar and her scene-stealing performance her. Part of what makes Little Women such a compelling ensemble piece is that none of the March sisters are perfect. Each of them has the potential for greatness, but all of them have their fair share of regrets. As passionate as Jo is about her writing, it eventually dawns on her that maybe she’s become wrapped up in her fictional world, missing the life right in front of her. Meg isn’t always happy with how her life has turned out, but it doesn’t take much more than a loving embrace from her husband and children to make it all worthwhile. Amy may be self-centered, but she comes to channel her determination towards something positive. The March sisters ultimately balance one another out, helping each other to grow as individuals.
While there’s been much analysis about the female characters in Alcott’s novel, the men in Gerwig’s film challenge gender stereotypes as well. Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) is uncommonly open about his feelings, holding nothing back as he finds himself in the middle of a love triangle between Jo and Amy. The same can be said about Friedrich (Louis Garrel), a German professor who takes a shine to Jo. Meg’s husband John (James Norton) shares many of the same frustrations about their life together, but the love and respect he has for his wife is never called into question. The fatherly figures, which include Bob Odenkirk as Mr. March and Chris Cooper as wealthy neighbor Mr. Laurence, are understanding and affectionate towards the girls. The closest thing there is to an antagonist in the film is publisher Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), who doesn’t always share Jo’s creative vision and even tries to slyly cheat her out of royalties. It quickly becomes clear to Dashwood, though, that Jo is too sharp for that, coming to view her as an equal.
Laura Dern and Meryl Streep round out a phenomenal cast, amounting to what might be the best-acted version of Little Women. It’s also perhaps the most well-crafted thanks to Alexandre Desplat’s magical musical score and Jacqueline Durran’s eye-popping costume design. What really sets this adaptation apart from all the rest, however, is Gerwig’s screenplay. Gerwig made the risky choice to tell the story out of order, which could’ve resulted in a needlessly convoluted mess like The Goldfinch. Yet, her unique approach to a familiar tale pays off in humorous, heartbreaking, and romantic ways. Along with editor Nick Houy, Gerwig blurs the lines between the past and present. We seamlessly transition between the March family’s highest of highs to their lowest of lows. This emphasizes just how much the characters have grown and the life choices that led them here. Whether you’ve heard this story before or the most you know about Alcott’s novel is from that Friends episode, Gerwig has made a film for all generations.