I have never experienced the apparently widespread phenomenon of being in a theater full of people who applaud the end of a film (at least not in a regularly scheduled film, as it has been known to happen at Weird Wednesdays and Terror Tuesdays, or when the director is in attendance), but I got my first taste of this peculiarity yesterday when Little Women concluded. Perhaps it is because I rarely find myself viewing a period piece at 1:15 on a Saturday afternoon and thus am almost never the youngest person in an auditorium by 30 years. I did expect that this might be the case, and I’ve certainly been in my fair share of screenings in which someone fell asleep, but this was definitely the first time I could hear someone snoring during the trailers (the same poor soul likewise dozed off again about an hour in, judging by the identical sounds). This is not indicative of the quality of Greta Gerwig’s latest, however; this movie is fantastic.
It’s the Reconstruction era. Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) has just sold a piece of writing to a newspaper in New York for $20, the same going rate as freelancers get in 2020, 150 years later, just in case there are any Boomers reading this and wondering why their grandchildren are so frustrated all the time. Elder sister Meg (Emma Watson) has married “a penniless tutor” and had twins, youngest sister Amy (Florence Pugh) is in Paris with Aunt March (Meryl Streep) learning painting and hoping to be courted by a man wealthy enough to support her and her family, including “indigent parents” Marmee (Laura Dern) and Father (Bob Odenkirk) March later in life. Beth (Eliza Scanlen), who many years earlier caught Scarlet Fever from a poor family that the Marches look after, is largely too weak to leave her bed after developing a weak heart as a result. Seven years earlier, Father March was working as a volunteer for the Union Army while Marmee tried to keep the family together, all four girls as vivacious and full of life as one small band of people could be, full of dreams. When the misunderstood lonesome older neighbor Mr. Lawrence (Chris Cooper) takes his orphaned nephew “Laurie” (Timothée Chalamet, or Timmy Chalchal as we call him around these parts) into his home, he becomes close friends with all of the girls, inspiring an unrequited love deep within the young Amy while only having eyes for the independent Jo. Back in the “present” (seven years later), Jo makes her way home to Concord upon learning that Beth’s condition has taken a turn for the worse, while Laurie and Amy reunite in Paris as the latter begins to believe that her artistic talent is workmanlike and passionless in comparison to the pursuits and interests of her sisters.
This is a beautiful film, a timeless piece of literature made fresh once more with a cast overbrimming with talent (minus one odd casting choice, which I’ll get to momentarily) and filmed with an eye for chromatic storytelling and such beautiful Northeast scenery that when I tell you I was there, I was there. This is also such a talented cast that they breathe a new life into characters that, in the original text and in previous film incarnations, were at times sullen, unlikable, or intolerable. Aunt March in particular comes across quite well in this outing, with Streep infusing the role, one of a harsh spinster who condescends and proclaims a hardline fusion of morality and manners at her nieces (especially the recalcitrant Jo), with a mild comic edge that humanizes her. Her appearances are rare, but gone is the feeling of dread that her appearance could summon when reading the original novel, or in other adaptations. And it’s not the same old Miranda Priestly, either, but a new casual cruelty tempered by kindness.
Likewise, Pugh infuses Amy with a likability that can be absent in other versions, relying solely on the charisma of the actor to take the shallow, bratty, narcissistic monster who (spoiler alert for a novel that’s older than radio) in a particularly petulant moment burns her sister’s long-labored upon novel out of spite for not getting to go to the theater. That still happens in this version, and it is still treated as unforgivable, but Pugh’s elevated performance lends Amy’s childhood frivolity a lightness: when Jo cuts her hair in order to obtain money for Mother March to go the DC hospital where her husband is being treated, Pugh’s delivery of “Your one beauty!” is hilarious. Likewise, the recurring element of Amy being proud of her diminutive feet (“the best in the family”) is delightful, appearing first on the evening that she first meets Laurie as she proclaims that she would never twist her ankle while dancing as Meg had, and later when she decides to make him a plaster mold of said dainty feet so as to prevent Laurie from forgetting about them. Even her marriage, which for fifteen decades has been near universally read as the ultimate culmination of her childhood model of femininity, is presented here as the result of an awareness of the necessity of sacrifice as much as it is an unearned reward for her behavior. “Amy has always had a talent for getting out of the hard parts of life,” Jo says at one point, and while she’s right, there comes a time when youngest March girl woman steps up and takes responsibility where her sisters can’t or won’t.
Of course, Jo is the star, and Ronan plays her with aplomb, but the internet will soon be full of gushing pieces that are better written than mine about her newest star turn. The only truly miscast part here is Odenkirk as Father March. I may be dating myself here, but the equation “Bob Odenkirk + period piece + sideburns” will always have the sum “A new Mr. Show sketch is starting!” to me, and there’s no way around that. When Father March comes back from DC after his recovery, there’s no way that your first thought isn’t that we’re about to hear about megaphone crooner Dickie Crickets or The Story of the Story of Everest (which you either love or hate). It’s not enough to bring the movie to a halt, but if you start laughing, you may get accusing stares from the elderly.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond