“I can’t afford to starve on praise.” – Jo March
In the first scene of Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Little Women, famed literary protagonist and icon of independence, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) sells out. As she pleads with her publisher, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) for her own interpretation, Dashwood shoots back, “Morals don’t sell nowadays.” Faced with a decision between artistic integrity and financial stability, Jo folds. And just like that, capitalism and art clash, setting the tone for Gerwig’s beautiful cinematic achievement. Gerwig continuously asks an audience what the literal cost of ambition is and how does one generate the means to pay for it.
But Like Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, a simple definition of a singular theme only pins down Little Women’s jaw dropping versatility and intelligence. In a film preoccupied with economics, Gerwig’s script beautifully navigates through questions of love, family, art, and desire, all the while reminding the viewer of the price inherent in each.
Little Women is the seventh film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s civil war era novel which follows the March sisters, Jo, Beth, Meg, and Amy, as the journey through their adventures in adolescence, transitioning towards adulthood. Each with their own distinct wants, talents, and flaws, the four sisters must reckon with the inevitable collision of fantasy and reality, dreams and societal expectations.
Little Women boasts one the best casts of 2019, loaded with young superstars like Saoirse Ronan, TImothee Chalamet, Florence Pugh, and Emma Watson, and established icons like Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, and Chris Cooper. With so many gifted performers all mastering their roles, it is difficult to praise any individual one without fear of omission.
Reteaming with Gerwig, Ronan captures the kinetic excitement and innate dynamism that made her Lady Bird character so special. As Jo, Ronan embodies artistic ambition and fiery independence, while subtly conveying hints of angst riddled loneliness that grants the character multiple dimensions. With 4 career Oscar nominations at the age of 25, Ronan is the kind of actress who inspires the lofty career expectations of a Meryl Streep, while still remaining in touch with a young, underdog quality.
In praising Ronan, one can’t help but point out her exceptional chemistry with co-star Timotheé Chalamet, as Jo’s neighbor and potential love interest Laurie. When the two actors share the screen, the film reaches a different level of excitement, whether they be dancing outside of a formal ball or running along a beach, delivering a kind of intangible energy that only movie stars can create. Chalamet hasn’t exactly had a great run after his 2017 breakouts in Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird, but here is truly transcendent. When watching his performance, Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn in Titanic comes to mind as an interesting parallel; both find a way to transform period pieces with their energetically modern flare, simultaneously swallowing up scenery and raising the level of the actors around them.
The film’s third standout talent is Florence Pugh’s performance as Amy, giving a dominating, surprisingly agile performance. Pugh’s ability to portray Amy’s transition from adolescence to adulthood across Little Women’s complicated chronology borders on staggering, as she creates a portrait of a full character living a full life. Amy is Little Women’s most challenging role, as she is required to create empathy and understanding with an audience while simultaneously staying direct and firm in her frequent antagonizing of the film’s heroes. With the help of Gerwig’s compassionate screenplay, Pugh walks this delicate balance, battling to validate her own ambitions and escape her sister’s shadow.
Gerwig’s examination of character detail and struggle, however, extends far beyond her leads. Whether it be Chris Cooper as the endlessly heartfelt Mr. Laurence or Emma Watson coping with her own class anxieties as Meg, Gerwig clearly cares about every aspect of her characters and all of their intricacies. Despite being snubbed a Best Director nomination, Gerwig is one of the best up and coming filmmakers alive. With only two features under her belt, she has proven her deft ability to create art that feels purposeful and truly earnest.
Gerwig’s talent for creating visuals also can’t be overlooked, as in scene after scene, she delivers cinematic flourishes that push the film past staid period piece fare and towards a modern interest in possibility. By having her characters deliver Alcott’s iconic dialogue in chaotic, Altman-esque fashion, Gerwig has allowed Little Women to transcend time, capturing all of the frenzied elation that makes the March family so enticing.
Through all of these thrills, Little Women still seamlessly weaves the motif of wealth and female economic empowerment throughout the film, always with passion and never overbearing. Gerwig’s talent at this stage in her career seems boundless, particularly given her attention to minute detail. In scenes of Jo dedicating herself to her writing, the audience engages with the action as well, cheering as if witnessing a sporting event, marveling as Jo switches the pen between her inked stained hands, powering through sleeplessness to tell her story. Little Women may be a film about money, but Gerwig’s capturing of that unbridled love for family, art, and creation will always be the film’s heart, making Little Women the most triumphant film of 2019.