Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age book “Little Women” has been a beloved classic for a century and a half, and in the hands of writer/director Greta Gerwig, the story of the March sisters is a tremendously resonant, sometimes heartbreaking and always entertaining hoot.
The acting performances are stellar across the board, though the biggest joy of “Little Women” (★★★½ out of four; rated PG; in theaters nationwide Dec. 25) is Gerwig’s magnificent screenplay, a fantastic follow-up to her Oscar-nominated “Lady Bird” that makes Alcott’s time and language feel effervescently modern and authentically nostalgic.
The film chronicles the hopes and dreams of four artistic sisters in the 19th century, each navigating various personal downfalls and triumphs – with much of the emotional heft falling upon Jo (Saoirse Ronan). With ink-stained fingers symbolizing her determination, Jo is a passionate and hot-tempered writer who believes in her independence and eschews the path of marrying for financial stability. That mind-set boggles the mind of her wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep) and tortures the heart of rich boy-next-door Laurie (Timothee Chalamet).
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Youngest sister Amy (Florence Pugh), a painter, is haughty and vindictive, especially when it comes to being jealous of Jo and missing out on sibling activities because of her age. Meg (Emma Watson) yearns to be an actor yet more important for her is finding the right husband and place in society. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is the reserved, piano-playing sibling and the conscience of the foursome, though a nasty bout of scarlet fever waylays her potential.
“Life is too short to be angry with one’s sisters,” says Jo, though love triangles, nasty altercations and melodramatic episodes stretch the ties that bind. The grown-ups at least give them fine role models: Mom Marmee (Laura Dern) is a good-hearted social worker who keeps things stable on the home front with their father (Bob Odenkirk) serving in Civil War, and Laurie’s grandfather (Chris Cooper) is an enigmatic sort who’s a big softie when it comes to Beth.
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While there’s nary a weak link among the cast, Ronan and Pugh are standouts portraying the growth of their characters over time but also the combustible dynamic between Jo and Amy. And if you didn’t get the hype for Chalamet after “Call Me By Your Name” and “Lady Bird,” this’ll do it. He’s all floppy-haired charm and broody gravitas as Laurie, who busts out jerking dance moves with Ronan’s Jo that lean a bit futuristic at a Civil War-era shindig (but still are fun to behold).
“Little Women” is a sumptuous effort from a technical standpoint, including gorgeous costumes and Alexandre Desplat’s lush piano-and-strings score. The movie also digs into the themes of women, money and inequality that very much reflect today’s culture. Jo negotiates with a book publisher (Tracy Letts) and fights for the copyright on her work in a subplot that doubles as a meta-narrative reflecting Alcott’s own struggles with pay and creativity.
Alcott’s text inspires a clever and outstanding script by Gerwig that’s bound to be adored by audiences and awards-season pundits alike. “That’s capital!” is Jo’s old-school equivalent of “Awesome!” and in one scene, she gets a little close to a warm hearth and her dress goes aflame. “You’re on fire,” someone tells her, which gets a “Thank you!” in response.
This “Little Women” is definitely for the girls who will invariably connect with the various March sisters as they have for 150 years with the book and in quite a few other screen adaptations. But it’s also for anybody in need of a smart, satisfying classic retold by one of Hollywood’s essential voices.