Few saw the success of Lady Bird coming when it released in 2017. The story of a young girl growing up in Sacramento felt fresh and contemporary, even as the film took place more than a decade before its release. The reaction became a coming-out party for Gerwig, who instantly became one of the most sought after directors in Hollywood. Many were surprised when actress turned director Greta Gerwig chose Little Women as her followup. Remaking the beloved story from Louisa May Alcott felt like a step back for a director with a unique voice. However, the living and breathing 2019 version of Little Women proves Gerwig might be the most exciting director in Hollywood.
Little Women follows the March family during the Civil War and the years that follow. Opening on Jo (Saorise Ronan) struggling as a writer and tutor in New York, Little Women soon introduces us to the rest of the family. Amy (Florence Pugh) pursues an artistic career in Europe with her Aunt March (Meryl Streep). She meets longtime family friend Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) as he recovers from a spurned proposal. Meg (Emma Watson) struggles with finances and her relationship with her husband Mr. Brooke (James Norton). Beth (Eliza Scanlan) plays piano for Laurie’s grandfather (Chris Cooper) and lives with the family matriarch Marmee (Laura Dern). When Beth grows ill, the girls return home and reflect on the lives they’ve lived.
Gerwig’s adaptation differs drastically from the many adaptations that have come before it. The structure of the film alters the timeline, instead of beginning with the girls as adults and flashing back to their lives together. An undeniably modern take on love, family, and the world for women becomes one of the great artistic visions of the year. The screenplay ignites with crackling dialogue, both true to the original story but delivered in a method that modern audiences will remain engaged. This version of Little Women creates humor out of unusual beats and does not feel the need to show us every little moment. Instead, the reallocation of time creates insightful changes that only Gerwig could have crafted.
Few criticized Gerwig for her last effort in Lady Bird, but her direction here undeniably shows artistic growth and flourish. She lets the scenes breathe, giving the actors space to let their emotions and chemistry build. The technical prowess of her filmmaking also takes a step forward. She gets incredible cinematographer from Yorick Le Saux, creating a visual style that recalls the great period dramas of James Ivory. She expertly weaves the tale with complicated and efficient editing, creating an undeniably beautiful story of parallels and turns that life takes. Finally, the score from Alexandre Desplat roars to life, providing the film with a heartbeat and energy. Little Women earns its merits as a technical showstopper, and place Gerwig among the very best directors of her generation.
Ronan once again proves herself one of the best actors living today. She tears into the role of Jo, making her every bit as fun and exciting as you’d expect. She picks up from her deeply emotional performance in Lady Bird, adding layer upon layer to her character. She knows when to let her fellow actresses shine, but she can bring you the verge of tears with a look. She’s the emotional heartbeat of the film, and this version of Jo gets to be the most complicated put to screen. It’s an emotional whirlwind and Ronan’s gravitational pull over the film allows her to expertly pull on your heartstrings.
Pugh delivers another multidimensional character this year. She capitalizes on her rubber face, which can seemingly contort in any way she needs it to at the drop of a hat. Amy gets the biggest change from the source material and finally does justice to her character. Pugh ensures you feel frustrated with her childhood actions, which frankly become grating at a certain point. Yet Gerwig stitches together a complicated emotional tapestry for her. Pugh’s scenes with Chalamet are electric, and the two elevate the film as a result.
Chalamet really comes to play here, despite knowing he will inevitably take a backseat to the women. He gets to play up his theatrical background, getting uproariously loud and silly when asked. His quiet, internal moments bring something extra out of Laurie. You can feel every spoken emotion from previous incarnations of the character, but with Chalamet, he communicates these feelings wordlessly. It’s one of his best turns yet.
The remainder of the cast gets incredible moments of love, joy, and sadness. Dern and Cooper earn best side character honors, and each gets plenty of opportunities to make you fall in love. Cooper really surprises in limited screentime, feasting on every bit of emotional complexity Mr. Lawrence represents. Meanwhile, Dern’s sage wisdom makes way for genuine emotional chaos. There’s something so beautiful about her turn here, and her emotional connection to Marmie never feels in doubt. Dern may win the Oscar for Marriage Story, but her turn in Little Women will endear an entire generation to her.
For a story that has been the subject of so many remakes, Little Women remains excitingly relevant today. The March family remains an American tradition, but Gerwig has left her mark on the story with her incredible telling. Gerwig ascends to another level here, and her partnership with Ronan prooves successful again. We’re watching the birth of a new Scorsese/De Niro, and the future remains bright for both. Gerwig will be a force for decades, and this movie will undeniably be considered one of her masterpieces.