Sunday, January 5, 2020

Little Women (2019) Revitalizes A Classic for A New Generation

Sony Pictures Releasing
Every generation of bookworms experience a new adaptation of Little Women. As Hollywood brings author Louisa May Alcott's tale to the big screen for the seventh time, it's easy to believe the beloved story fulfills another quota for the reboot machine. Unlike most recent flailing remakes that fail to step out of the box or honor the original, director Greta Gerwig instills enough changes to revitalize the classic as well as stick to its roots.

Set during the Civil War, the March sisters face trials and tribulations with their place in the world. While Jo (Saoirse Ronan) aspires to be an independent writer, she struggles alongside her sisters Amy (Florence Pugh), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and Meg (Emma Watson) to follow their passions or find economic stability through marriage.

As with an highly-anticipated book adaptation, the first question that comes to every loyal reader's mind is if the movie stays true to its source. Though I've never read the classic novel before, and only familiar with Gillian Armstrong's 1994 version, Greta Gerwig's Little Women remains familiar to the original story and how it's been explored on-screen before. With a story as universally recognized as this, the film hits key scenes that almost everyone's expects to see, and a few newer ones that have been overlooked. Primarily, this latest version sets itself apart by its non-linear storytelling. Instead of dutifully using the novel from chapter-to-chapter, the script maps out Jo's life from the middle as she grapples with becoming a respected writer and uses flashbacks to explore her adolescence. Less focused on driving the plot, this new take acts as a love letter to the March family, Louisa May Alcott, and the passion it takes to be a writer.

For the most part, the film's non-linear angle is where the story succeeds and falters. As the film's most common criticism is the flashbacks, for me, it's less that flashbacks are used at all but more of how they're used. With Jo tying the film together between her own dreams and her sisters' lives, the script tries to build tension between each March sister of how they want to approach their troubles. As the film tries to recreate Alcott's narrative as a collage of memories, the flashbacks often removes us from the main storyline just as it begins or continues. The characters exploring the past is often in parallel to how their lives turned out as adults, and it's very worthy quest. But the style of flashbacks also varies too often, sometimes being told solely from Jo's point of view to switching between other characters can be jarring. Gerwig's approach doesn't damage the film entirely, but the inclusion of plots isn't as smooth as it could've been.

Where Little Women remarkably sets itself apart from the earlier versions in the most timely way possible is exploring the character's motivations and personalities. We mainly get a sense of the March sisters through their different vocations - writing for Jo, painting for Amy, music for Beth, and homemaking for Meg - and what it means to each of them and their future. While most of the adaptations kept the inner-workings of society as a backdrop, the main thread here explores how the March clan rejects or accepts their place as women - the economic practicality of getting married to someone rich versus someone poor, how marriage also makes a woman and their children property to their husband, and how it's frowned upon for a woman to pursue passions outside of a family life or service to the community. Not only does the film offer nods to Alcott's possible queerness and original intention for her novel's ending, Gerwig's version could be considered the most feminist so far with inspiring messages of a woman's freedom or lack-thereof to choose their fate that perfectly aligns with its author.

The variety of timelines also gives the cast a chance to shine both individually and as an ensemble. Though it's impossible to pinpoint a bad apple in the bunch, the film truly belongs to a select few. With Jo at the center, Ronan cements another transformative performance in an unstoppable career of wondrously complex roles that spotlight her range. Following her, Pugh as Amy gives more dimension of the character who's commonly regarded as superficial and spoiled, and Timothee Chalamet delivers a demure yet awkwardly charming turn as Laurie. (Chris Cooper as Teddy's grandfather, who is often portrayed as stern and distant, also gives a remarkably warm and unique performance.) Some of the supporting roles - Watson, Scanlen, and Laura Dern -  are a little lost in the shuffle due to the script's structure, but they are nonetheless wonderful as well, and complete the portrait of why the March family has endured for almost 150 years.

Heartfelt, humorous, and tear-jerking, the film aspires to appeal to hardcore literature fans as well as  general movie goers who might only be familiar with past films. Despite the script's uneven handling of timelines, the film has Gerwig's indelible fingerprints all over it - the way it's able to move between so many different emotions and arcs, never lags or rushes the plot, and has a keen sense of her unique strengths behind the camera to offer a love letter to life itself (for Lady Bird it was independence, family, and coming of age, for Little Women its writing and Louisa May Alcott). In a little under two years, Gerwig's not a director to "watch out for" anymore, but someone who has established a vibrant spirit and female voice in film that's sorely lacking. No matter how many times Little Women has been remade and will be refashioned in the future, Gerwig's vision carves out her own spot and lives up to Alcott's legacy.

Rating: ★
Have you seen Little Women? What did you think?

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