For those of us who wondered whether Ladybird was only so good because we grew up in the same time narrow place and time period as its semi-autobiographical auteur, Greta Gerwig, there’s Little Women, Gerwig’s Reconstruction-era dramedy of hearth and home adapted from a book that was originally published in 1868. Turns out, a format denying Gerwig easy jokes about ska and Howard Zinn only brings her talent into sharper focus. Gerwig’s adaptation retains all the appeal of its source material while placing it in a historical context that allows us to understand not just the what, but the how and the why as well. All things considered, this is a shockingly good adaptation.
For the first 15 minutes or so of Little Women, I admit I had my doubts. I liked those ska jokes, and this tale of four sisters lightly teasing each other in bubbly overlapping dialogue initially seemed like, well, sort of Not My Thing (full disclosure: I am an only child who has never read Louisa May Alcott). Yet the longer I watched, the more invested in it I became. By the end I was practically crying into my popcorn, biting my tongue to keep from shrieking “I just want Jo to be happy!” This is how every movie you know nothing about should work.
Little Women is an irresistible earworm of a movie (or whatever the movie equivalent of an earworm is) that essentially turned me into Jo’s book publisher, played by Tracy Letts: initially skeptical, but eventually unable to let go of these characters. The story follows the four March sisters — vain Meg (Emma Watson), headstrong Jo (Saoirse Ronan), overshadowed Amy (Florence Pugh), and shy Beth (Eliza Scanlen) — as it jumps between their childhood in New England with an absent father off helping freedmen, and Jo’s present-day life trying to make it as a writer in postbellum New York City. Timothée Chalamet plays the March’s wealthy playboy neighbor, Laurie Laurence, living with his widower grandfather played by Chris Cooper. Laura Dern shows up as the March’s loving mother and Meryl Streep rounds out the cast as the March’s bad cop spinster aunt, laying out the grim realities of 19th-century life for women who don’t marry wealthy.
If it were merely a faithful Alcott adaptation, Little Women would work just fine — thanks to Gerwig’s smart casting and preternatural skill at coaxing great performances from great actors. Saoirse Ronan plays Jo with the same steely resolve and subdued emotion she gave to Brooklyn, while Florence Pugh’s sensitive but calculating Amy is nothing like her work in Midsommar but equally mesmerizing. In a perfect world, these two would be competing for best actress this year (along with Lupita Nyong’o for Us). Meanwhile, Gerwig remains one of the only directors to showcase Tracy Letts in his true depth (he may be great at playing the evil suit, but he’s so much more), and having Chris Cooper around in any capacity is always a smart move. Even the way Gerwig gives Laura Dern something to play other than imperious Yas Qween seems mildly revolutionary these days. (I never quite buy Emma Watson in anything but casting her as the superficial sister at least makes sense).
Ah, but Little Women is more than just a faithful adaptation. When Gerwig departs from the source, she makes it count, incorporating elements of Louisa May Alcott’s real life into the story in a meta-narrative about Jo-as-Alcott, rewriting her own story as we watch. This allows Gerwig to explore the realities of 19th-century spinsterhood — an era in which many women foresaw their loss of autonomy as wives and instead chose to remain single — which Gerwig does without sugarcoating the realities of spinster life or turning Little Women into a cheap empowerment story. She can do all this even as she gives us the crowd-pleasing ending we all want to see — only now in a tongue-in-cheek way that allows us to enjoy it without believing in its literal reality. Which is to say, Gerwig films what is essentially the 19th century equivalent of the running-through-the-airport rom-com scene, only now framed as a bittersweet satire, both touching and heartbreaking. It’s magnificent.
If only Gerwig’s partner, Noah Baumbach, had been able to call Marriage Story “The Divorce,” then Gerwig could’ve called Little Women “Marriage Story.” It’s unfair to compare them, because Little Women‘s lovelorn meta-fictional 1860s sisters feel more recognizably human than anyone in Baumbach’s roman-a-clef of contemporary intellectuals. Sorry, I shouldn’t be trying to start household fights.
Suffice it to say, there’s very little flash to Little Women and a whole lot substance. It doesn’t scream what it is. It nurtures our appreciation gradually so that when we finally realize that we’re truly in love, it feels that much sweeter. It’s one of the most successful adaptations I’ve seen in a long time.