Little Women begins with the camera trained on a young woman facing a closed door, her back to the camera and head down. We soon find out it’s Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), the story’s most audacious character. Much like Rocky stepping into the ring to face Apollo Creed, Jo is muscling up the strength to make her dreams a reality.
Jo is about to sit down with a publisher and attempt to sell her stories. That this publisher is a man, dismissive, and condescending should go without saying – it’s civil war period America, after all. The character’s one saving grace is that he’s played with cantankerous zeal by theatre legend Tracy Letts. All Jo wants is to share her art with the world, but as is the case with every pursuit in her young life, there is a gatekeeper standing in her way.
This opening scene draws upon themes that writer/director Greta Gerwig will return to again and again over the course of the picture as she uses Louisa May Alcott’s timeless Little Women books to draw parallels with the adversity women still face today.
Little Women tells the story of the four March sisters, Meg (Emma Watson), Jo, Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), who come of age against the backdrop of the American civil war. The plot sees them endure love, loss, and test the bonds of friendship while navigating through a society that only values women for their physical beauty.
But these four young women aren’t about to marry the first suitor who comes their way. Their strength and independence come from the influential cast of characters who pass through their lives. There’s the girls’ selfless mother Marmee (Laura Dern) who exudes the patience of a saint; puckish childhood friend Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), whose love is platonic until it’s not; and their rich neighbour Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), who loves the girls like they were his own.
Many filmmakers have taken a crack at Little Women over the years, but Gerwig breaks from tradition to deliver a version that feels fresh and of the moment. Instead of telling a linear story following the girls as they grow up, the script starts near the end of the book with Jo as an adult. This Christopher Nolan-like time jumping allows the film to cut between the present and the past, which the filmmaker uses as a tool to draw attention to the story’s core themes.
Little Women is about the trials and tribulations of four sisters, sure. But that’s like saying that The Godfather is a gangster flick or Apocalypse Now is a war movie. What this movie actually tackles runs so much deeper. This film is about women confronting patriarchal oppression and the ways that they buck against or fall in line with the system. While some of these themes are obvious, there are many subtle elements in play.
Little Women’s uses of contrast to explore the March sisters’ stories is nothing short of poetic. The film contrasts the past and the present, city living and rural life, romance and pragmatism, the rich and the poor, ambition and success, and harmony and chaos. This sounds like too much for one 135-minute film to tackle, but Gerwig executes her vision and hammers home her themes with a masterful touch.
Little Women looks like a stuffy period piece, though, it’s anything but. The film sings every time the March sisters are on screen together. The best way to describe their manic energy is organized chaos. You know how Charlie Brown’s friend Pig-Pen walks around in a cloud of dust? The March sisters, when together, emit a similar aura, though instead of soot and dust, it’s a welcoming energy.
Whether they’re acting rambunctious at home in their attic while putting on a play or bursting into Mr. Laurence’s quiet reading room, the girls have a captivating presence. As they laugh, argue, swap stories, and pout, you can see the men in their vicinity stop and look on in awe. But these aren’t men being sketchy and lusting after these beautiful young women. It’s something else. They’re captivated by the sisters’ allure; their tightknit bond gives-off a palpable sense of love and togetherness. If you grew up with siblings and have fond memories of your time together, then you know what I mean. And if you grew up a lonely child, yearning for those tight sibling bonds, you also know just what I mean.
Ronan, Pugh, and Chalamet are three of the finest actors working today. I could write 5000 words about the trio’s work here, and it wouldn’t be enough to do them justice. That Gerwig managed to wrangle all three of these talented actors together at this point in their ascendant careers is like Nick Fury rounding up The Avengers for the first time. These three actors will be in our lives for generations, and one day we will look back in awe that they were young and talented and beautiful together in such an extraordinary film.
The cast’s killer performances are bolstered by the rest of the talented team Gerwig assembled. I don’t listen to many film scores, but if I do, it’s probably because of Alexandre Desplat. I still get weepy when I hear his The Shape of Water score, and in Little Women, Desplat once again delivers at the highest level. His music captures the essence of the March sisters, alternating between boisterous and wistful melodies that will prime your tear ducts to unload at a moment’s notice.
DP Yorick Le Saux’s recent work with Luca Guadagnino and Clair Denise is simply dazzling, and Gerwig made an excellent choice hiring him for Little Women. First off, the picture was shot on film, so bravo for that. But also, the movie is full of standout images. I keep thinking of Jo laying on the floor with dozens of pages of writing spread out all around her, or Meg ascending a narrow staircase with a group of women in puffy ball gowns that are clustered together like grapes.
Gerwig and Le Saux shoot the film differently depending on whether we’re viewing the past or present. They capture flashbacks with a warm glowing hue that looks like the manifestation of a fond childhood memory. And during the past, when the sisters are together, their world is chaos, and Le Saux captures these moments images with more erratic camera movements.
When the little women are all grown, the colour temperature is cooler, and the camera movement becomes more precise. But no matter what period we’re watching, Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are exquisite. Envisioning Chalamet’s wiry frame in his tight waistcoat and puffy-sleeved blouse will always make me chuckle.
Little Women is a spectacular feat of filmmaking and a wonderful Christmas movie. It’s a film I want to share with everyone in my life who gives a damn about movies, and I can see myself returning to it every holiday season.
Greta Gerwig once again knocks it out of the park and in doing so, makes a strong case that she’s one of cinema’s next great directors. If a man stepped into the filmmaking arena and delivered a one-two punch as impressive as Lady Bird and Little Women, someone would have already handed over the keys to a superhero franchise. But they haven’t, yet, which tells me being a woman in Hollywood does have some privileges.
Little Women arrives in theatres on December 25, 2019.