Thursday, February 6, 2020
The LAMB Devours The Oscars: Little Women As Best Picture Nominee
To celebrate the Oscars this year, I'm participating in The Lamb's Oscar Fest to highlight the film's accomplishment for earning a Best Motion Picture of the Year nomination.
Most of the world knows the March sisters. With dozens of adaptations from television series to five mainstream films, Hollywood certainly hasn't forgotten. As reboots and remakes mine old stories over and over again, directors and studios as well as readers and writers return to Louisa May Alcott’s international bestseller because there’s more of the March sisters’ timeless story we've yet to experience.
For all intents and purposes, the latest fifth adaptation by director Greta Gerwig follows Alcott’s book as much as we’ve seen of the girls on-screen before –Marmie (Laura Dern) raises her group of rowdy, creative, and passionate daughters as their father fights in Civil War. Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) writes and refuses to settle down; Meg (Emma Watson) adores acting but strives to be a wife and mother; Amy (Florence Pugh) wants to a great painter but knows the economic values of marrying rich; Beth loves music and her sisters. As they grow up, they develop kinship with the tender-hearted next-door-neighbor Theodore Laurence (Timothee Chalamet), his grandfather Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), and his Latin teacher Mr Brooks (James Norton).
As long as you've seen one film or tv version of Little Women, or read the book, there's a typical checklist of scenes that are expected to be adapted - Jo and Laurie's dancing around his mansion, Meg falling in love with Mr. Brooks, Amy falling into the ice, Beth's illness and so much more. While it might seem the story is a paint-by-numbers project by now, Gerwig doesn’t just copy the March sisters from the book and onto the screen. Without the restrictions of the earlier films, namely the 1918, 1933, and 1949 versions, Gerwig steps out of the box to make the film from a non-linear abstract narrative. Marrying the sister's bonds and their aspirations together, the past and present come together in the middle as the script expands on all the sister's lives with Jo March in the center.
Filmed with a golden filter and pastel hues, the March’s childhood is cozy and animated. As we see the girls in midst of their adolescence, life is about the bonds they have with each other and what they hope for the future. We’re taken back to the rose-colored version of their lives when they were on the cusp of change – relationships with male suitors hadn’t come between their plays and roughhousing, they were ambitious without having faced rejection, they held onto each other because that’s all they had without economic comforts of other wealthier families. Almost all of the scenes where the characters interact with each other, especially in group sequences, are carefully choreographed, so there is a cacophony of conversation and bursts of energy from each of the sisters. You can’t help but smile and feel warmth in your heart as they are the life of the party when life hasn’t yet made them simply ‘grow up’ yet.
Contrasting their childhood with their adulthood, the March’s adulthood is filmed with a blue-ish tint, making this period of their lives more stark, cold, and isolating. The sisters haven’t stopped loving or caring for each other, but their lives have taken them in different directions emotionally and physically. Subsequently, these scenes focus more on the characters separately; Jo strives to make it a living as a writer and teacher in New York; Meg struggles with the responsibilities as a wife and mother; Amy is traveling in Europe with Aunt March combating her feelings between marrying as an economic proposition but also for love; Beth is bedridden and taken care of by her family at home. The foursome aren't reunited again, and if they a pairing of them share the screen together, it's often under maturer circumstances. The dreams they had as teenagers come true, but with the earned wisdom that emerges from coming of age.
The transitions between the past and present move seamlessly as most flashbacks should do in movies – the timeline can be easily followed by the differences in the film’s visual aesthetic. However, the characters’ memories of the past are often reflected by how they feel in the present – adulthood makes us yearn for the way things used to be, and childhood reminds us of the wisdom, heartache, and strength that will develop over time.
Beyond the characters we’ve grown familiar with, and the stock of scenes we’ve seen play out again and again, Gerwig infuses their lives with an incredible amount of detail in the script she wrote as well as the production design by Jess Gonchor and costume design by Jacqueline Durran. Shot on location in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts as well as Harvard, Gonchor and his team built sets such as the March and Laurence houses; filling the former with blankets, antiques, knicknacks, and color to create an ambiance of the house feeling rich and lived in, while the latter is vast, dark, and could definitely use a woman's touch. The story comes alive in the variety of locations, but also the clothing – each character is represented with a specific color: red for Jo, green for Meg, blue for Amy, and pink/brown for Beth, and throughout the film you can see little touches of their colors not only in what they wear but Marmie as well – because as their mother, she encompasses all of them. Gerwig's composition to frame the characters within their time period, but not make it a standard brooding period piece is what makes Little Women is joyous and heartbreaking. There's so much life teeming between the characters, it's fun to catch up on tiny details you missed before while feeling emotionally wrapped up in the story.
Gerwig's choice to use flashbacks does much more than make this a flashier Little Women than other versions that told Alcott's story linearly. It also gives the characters wider dimension. While Jo is certainly the centerpiece connecting to all of the sisters, the ensemble has a chance to step up to the plate and make the characters more personal to connect with. The film's biggest turning points have as much of an impact as the smallest interactions such as the girls getting on each other's nerves or supporting each other, Jo and Laurie's playfulness, and the quiet, meaningful glances between Meg and Mr. Brooks. As the March sisters grow, we get a sense of who they are and all of their relationships from Marmie relating to Jo about their impatience and anger to Amy and Laurie revealing their feelings about each other, and Mr. Laurence’s soft spot for Beth and her music. Rarely are there any scenes that doesn’t deepen their connections or mirror moments that are central to their maturation, and emphasize the shift in time or how circumstances has changed them.
At the beginning of the film, Jo pitches a potential publisher about a short story, and Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) instructs that her future submissions should make sure the heroines end up dead or married. Instead of the characters just falling into these two types (which they do), they have fully-colored experiences and lives. Jo doesn’t just love writing; Gerwig celebrates the craft of it – believing in the story, being vulnerable, facing rejection, getting published, and seeing the book being made. Womanhood isn’t just a thing that women go through like a 2-page how-to Cosmopolitan cheatsheet – Gerwig explores adolescence and adulthood dealing with expectations, hopes, failures, and dreams. Domestic struggles during the Civil War weren’t just being poor and waiting for soldiers to come home from war; Gerwig shows women could be wives, mothers, and sisters but also pillars to the community and independent from society's expectations. Gerwig's Little Women doesn’t just address one theme or another, but creates a love letter honoring women’s lives both in fiction and real life.
Hollywood often glosses over what makes a film important – if they don’t have any interest in it financially, it doesn’t matter; but the making of the film is actually what makes it matter. Contrary to common industry-led belief, not every film about women has to be great or nothing. But it sure does help if it’s exceptionally good at showing women as having minds, souls, hearts, ambition, and talent as well as beauty. And seeing this film, among all the other male nominees, makes me feel less lonely and gives hope about what women, filmmakers, and cinema could be fit for.