I feel like I’m supposed to start my thoughts on Greta Gerwig’s Little Women by assuring you that I read the book twice as a kid, which will then bolster the credibility of my opinion, whether positive or negative. But in fact, I am pretty neutral on Louisa May Alcott. Little Women was probably the first Adult Book I read when I was in elementary school, something big and old with many chapters, and I reread it a few years later to see if I got more of it as a 12-year-old than I did as an 8-year-old. I did! But overall, it didn’t make that much of an impression on me. Instead, little me was obsessed with like, Jack London. For our 5th-grade burlap embroidery project, I replicated the cover of our school library’s copy of White Fang.
Are there any similarities between White Fang and Little Women (2019), you may be asking yourself, in growing confusion? There is for me! Snow. Snow figures heavily in my estimation of a work’s quality. There is such good snow in Little Women! It is not winter the whole time, but it feels like winter the whole time. It’s cozy, it’s so freaking cozy. Everyone is always wearing these cheerful woolen socks and nice fabrics and amazing jackets, and there is warm lighting and bustling, that particular cozy wintertime kind of familiar, familial movement. I found it so nice to just look at and listen to this movie, to the music of the girls’ voices weaving with Alexandre Desplat’s score. Not that the actual styles necessarily resemble each other, but the aesthetics of this movie activated the same pleasure centers in my brain that are delighted by Wes Anderson movies. Both are heightened appearances—here, the costume & production design clearly began in the 1860s, but veered off to land in this faintly fantasy realm, shaped by a modern sensibility of Character and Prettiness. I was entirely down with it. I liked how you could always tell the March sisters in a crowd by their anachronistic loose hair, how it marked them visually as different, a little out-of-time. I adored Jo wearing what looked like men’s shirts under her waistcoats, and Laurie more soft, feminine blouses under his. I loved that perfect attic.
Is this movie possibly too lovely and nice? I mean it depends on what kind of experience you want out of a film, I’d say. But as the adage goes, easy reading is damn hard writing. Making a movie this charming is just as difficult a feat as making a movie that’s stressful. They both require a strong and well-expressed directorial vision, and performances in sync with it. Speaking of which, Gerwig has a nearly perfect cast of lovables here. Timothée Chalamet as this innately dissolute & floppy sentimental rich boy is just top quality use of Chalamet. Saoirse Ronan and Laura Dern are, as ever, masterclasses, and good mother-daughter casting to boot. But the most inspired casting in this movie has got to be pairing Meryl Streep with Florence Pugh. Florence Pugh in this…I’ve loved her since Lady Macbeth, and my god, the woman’s got TALENT. Her Amy is hilarious, human, infuriating and winning. She doesn’t eclipse her costars, but oh, she shines bright.
Now, politically, this movie has gotten positioned in the cultural discourse as the only chance for female stories to be taken seriously in 2019’s film crop. And that’s a shame just on the face of it, that each year we just get the one basket for all our eggs, and also because I feel this particular movie was too light & lovely to quite bear that weight. Of course it is feminist, by definition: it is concerned with depicting women as full human beings, quite literally in the script at several moments. It’s just not the style of cinematic feminism that makes me feel excited about the directions women-led filmmaking might go in, the way this year’s Hustlers or The Farewell did, or even Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird two years ago. It’s nice, watching a period piece that states simply, by its existence and dialogue, that women are interesting—listen I had a wonderful time watching Colette—and I think more of these in the world is a good thing, far better than none of them. I just think Little Women is suffering from undue expectations that were forced on it by the nature of the film (& criticism) industry right now. Not everything has to be that deep or revolutionary, and it can do a disservice to good works to try to package them that way.
Anyway, the book changes! [Those who don’t want to know anything that’s different yet, look away now!] Apparently young me only registered that Friedrich Bhaer was European and somewhat older than the rest of the characters, and as Louis Garrel is French and looks older than Timothée Chalamet (I mean who doesn’t), I had not seen his casting as a shift. Turns out, Friedrich was decidedly not an attractive figure in the novel, and Garrel is, and listen, I take no issue with it. Because, and this is getting to another meaningful change, if you’re going to do an elegant choose-your-own-interpretive-adventure kind of ending (which I think is the kindest choice for an adaptation of beloved book), then you might as well let the ending where Jo still marries the professor be an ending where the professor is a certified dish. And alternatively, Jo gets to be genderqueer ace representation, which also rules.