Little Women is so buoyant and joyous, so it is easy to miss the anger that informs it. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the beloved novel has genuine infection for its characters, the March sisters in particular, although along with that affection comes a sense of frustration. These characters are independently minded, you see, yet they are stuck in a story that suffocates their freedom. Unlike past versions of Little Women, Gerwig includes a strain of necessary revisionism. Her follow-up to Lady Bird is somehow even more accomplished, the sort of film that will invite countless revisits. It’s that good.
The biggest departure is how Gerwig splices the chronology. She skips around, showing the March sisters under one roof, and later when they have splintered due to the trappings of adulthood. Our entry point is Jo (Saoirse Ronan), a proto-feminist who dreams of becoming a famous writer. We see the family mostly through her eyes, while Meg (Emma Watson) embarks on family life. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is the sick one who dies – she’s arguably the best of the sisters – while Amy (Florence Pugh) is the most vivacious (Laura Dern plays their mother, who does a good job of keeping everyone functional). Together they struggle through the fallout of the Civil War, while their neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) unintentionally teases a life of privilege.
The most seductive thing about this Little Women is how it looks. Gerwig and her cinematographer Yorick Le Saux have made one of the best-looking movies of the year, mostly relying on shadow and natural light. There is a great scene where Jo and Laurie share a dance outside the confines of fashionable society, and the rich darkness only highlights their fleeting joy. Parts of this film are a little like Barry Lyndon, at least in terms how it uses natural light, although Gerwig loves her characters in a way that Kubrick never could. Each scene, even the deeply sad ones, are an opportunity to share the lives of these exceptional, flawed people.
Ronan and Chalamet have worked with Gerwig before, so they’re no stranger to the bittersweet tone she wants, so the real standout is Pugh. Amy is totally unlike Pugh’s character in Midsommar, another gorgeously shot film. There is a risk in making Amy too broad, or maybe too obnoxious. Somehow Pugh always strikes the right note, especially when she behaves badly. The only real issue is Watson, although Meg is such a one-note character that the story does her few favors. Still, the chemistry between the young cast is palpable, and they make a rambunctious family. Whenever the sisters put on show conceived by Jo, which is often, their affection is its most genuine.
Everyone knows the story of Little Women, but Gerwig keeps one surprise from us. It is sitting right there throughout all the action, all the melodrama and tears, except we cannot quite see it. When Gerwig finally reveals her hand, Little Women veers from a good film into a great one. Her shift is arguably a radical departure, to the point that longtime fans and purists may take issue with the liberties taken by Gerwig and her cast. The real mistake would be slovenly devotion to the material, and since Gerwig is a serious filmmaker, she finds a way to make the March sisters relevant to her.
When a new generation of fans discover this Little Women and maybe revisit older adaptation, they might be shocked it took someone this long to make one so vibrant and spirited.