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Little Women (2019)

About a month ago, I was talking with my parents about giving “Little Women” a read, in preparation for the upcoming film adaptation. My mother came back with a beautiful decades-old hardbound copy that she’d been given for her sixth birthday, complete with a signed note from her grandmother on the inside cover.

Imagine my crushing guilt and overwhelming disappointment to find that I could not get through this book. I made it to the start of Chapter Nine, in which the March Sisters — Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy — go on about the minutiae of whose clothes are whose and where such-and-such came from and the old tarlatan goes nicely with the new muslin skirt and if only Jo hadn’t smashed her coral bracelet or she would’ve loaned it out and SWEET MERCY, SPARE ME THREE SOLID PAGES OF THIS.

Amy gets snubbed an invite to the theatre because she’s sick, so she burns Jo’s book. Amy gets a literal slap on the wrist and she’s made to stand in the corner over contraband limes (not a typo), and the family is so shocked that they pull her from school altogether. The neighboring Mr. Laurence is an old and terrifying figure until they get to know him and he turns out to be perfectly nice. There’s no overarching plot, just a stiff and toothless series of penny-ante non-issues presented as high melodrama, invariably resolved without consequence through very little effort by the end of the chapter, rinse and repeat.

Does it really get so much better that it’s worth over 600 pages of this? If so, when?

Of course I’m aware that a 19th-century comedy of manners will be small and intimate by nature, but there are so many better examples of the genre and period out there. It doesn’t have the sizzling chemistry or convoluted interpersonal politics of “Pride and Prejudice”. It doesn’t have the farcical wit or dizzying satirical wordplay of “The Importance of Being Earnest”. It doesn’t have the compelling pathos or the gothic atmosphere of “Jane Eyre”.

Any one of those stories had more humor, more wit, more character development, and more compelling drama in one paragraph than I found in 100+ pages of Louisa May Alcott’s seminal work. I’m as far removed from the target demographic as time and gender could allow, and I still found more to enjoy in those other timeless classics than I could find in “Little Women”.

Well, Greta Gerwig obviously had more patience than I did. Not to mention more talent and a sharper wit. And thank God for that.

There’s some obvious connective tissue between Little Women (2019) and Lady Bird right off the jump. Of course they’re both feminist coming-of-age stories in which Saoirse Ronan (here playing Jo) stars as an outspoken non-conformist young woman. We’ve even got Tracy Letts and Timothee Chalamet making return appearances. But the connections go much deeper.

In both of her writing/directing efforts to date, Gerwig rejects any portrayal of love, marriage, and family as overly simplistic. In Little Women, she demonstrates especially vocal disdain for the notion of marriage as a grand romantic endeavor, while also rejecting the idea of marriage as a purely economical transaction. Rather, Gerwig portrays family, marriage, and other relationships of love as a complicated and ever-shifting beehive of shared emotions and conflicts. Yes, love and money are a significant part, but it’s mostly the constant struggle of two or more people staying together no matter how badly they may want to strangle each other.

This brings me to another recurring theme: Loneliness. It was far more overt in Lady Bird, but Little Women likewise raises the idea that even being hated or pitied is still better than being ignored or alone. The poet said that “hell is other people”, so why would we put up with other people unless being alone was somehow even worse? Moreover, how is it possible to find happiness with other people if it means adjusting to other people’s expectations and rules?

The answer, of course, is to find people who don’t need you to adjust. And if you happen to be born into a family of such people, you’re set for life.

Then we have the “coming-of-age” aspect, and this was adapted in a rather ingenious way. For those who aren’t aware, the book we know as “Little Women” actually started out as two separate books. “Little Women” was first published in 1868, and the sequel, “Good Wives”, was published in 1869. From 1880 onward, both books have been published together as two volumes of a single novel, titled “Little Women.”

So what we have here is an adaptation of two completely different stories set in two completely different time periods, and they just happen to feature the exact same characters at two completely different periods in their lives. How could anyone possibly adapt all of this into a single coherent film?

By jumping back and forth between the two time periods.

This was an inspired move. It directly conjures feelings of nostalgia, the setups and payoffs are wonderful, and the parallels between past and present can hit like a sucker-punch. But most importantly and beautifully of all, it directly shows in clear and certain terms how the characters have (not) grown in the intervening years.

This more than anything else is how the film could get away with constantly shifting between time periods. Yes, it certainly helped that “Volume Two” was shot in bleaker whites and blues while “Volume One” was shot in warmer orange tones. And of course there are subtle changes in the makeup and costuming as well.

(Side note: Reportedly, Gerwig got a great deal of coaching from Steven Spielberg himself, who opened up all the research he did in designing and shooting the same time period for Lincoln. It really paid off here, no doubt.)

But more than that, the performances are all so radically different. Of course Beth (Eliza Scanlen) has those health problems in her later years, but Meg (Emma Watson) is so much older and wearier as the married mother of two kids, and Jo is somehow even more jaded after working her ass off to make a living until she finally sells a story.

All of the performances from our core quartet are perfectly lovely. But Florence Pugh (whose meteoric rise over the past year has been deeply inspiring to behold) is on another level. In “Volume Two”, Amy’s a practical and increasingly disillusioned young woman of twenty. In “Volume One”, she’s an impulsive and highly emotional young girl of thirteen. Amy’s development is easily the most profound of the four sisters’, and watching Pugh bounce back and forth between the two time periods is mind-blowing.

Then we have the rest of the cast. Timothee Chalamet has built a career off of his “bad boy” persona, and this is a fine extension of that. Laura Dern is suitably charming and wise as the matriarch. Tracy Letts is a hoot, here playing a cynical publisher. Louis Garrel and and James Norton are serviceable enough as respective love interests for Jo and Meg. Bob Odenkirk barely has anything to do, as the March patriarch is absent through most of the story, but it works because he’s always a joy to see onscreen. Chris Cooper shows up just long enough to collect a paycheck, but at least he was well-cast. Likewise, Meryl Streep gets maybe ten minutes of screen time to play a sharp-witted spinster like only she could do in her sleep at this point.

But then there’s the million-dollar question that I had going in: How the hell is Greta Gerwig going to adapt those first hundred pages that kept putting me to sleep? What could possibly be done to make all that unreadable dreck into good cinema? The solution was three-fold.

First, most of the book’s initial episodes are heavily truncated. With a few exceptions, pretty much all of the first several chapters are reduced to brief scenes or throwaway lines. What’s more, they’ve been reordered to flow in a more effective way, and many of them happen in rapid succession within the same scene.

Second, there’s the matter of those interminable scenes like the Chapter Nine opening I was talking about earlier. How does Gerwig hold the audience’s attention while the sisters are prattling on about inane twaddle? Speed and passion. Make the characters talk so fast that they’re tripping over each other’s sentences, and make the performances passionate enough that it looks like they’re having fun. The end result is a marvelous, heartwarming, instantly effective means of showing these characters as a tight-knit family of sisters. Gerwig took some of the most boring dialogue in the book and transformed it into a poignant and entertaining show of sisterhood. Incredible.

Third, there’s a scene later on in the movie’s closing, in which Meg and Amy tell Jo why she should finish and publish her book. I won’t get into spoilery details here, but suffice to say that it made me feel like a world-class heel for all my earlier complaints about how the book was boring. The whole time I was reading it, I kept asking what anyone saw in this book. Watching that scene, my question was answered in a big way.

Little Women (2019) is easily on par with Lady Bird. I might even put this one above Gerwig’s previous work, as the writer/director had the advantage of an existing text to work from this time. Even so, Gerwig made this story her own with dazzling results. It’s heartfelt, it’s engaging, it’s inventive, and even the weakest performances are a joy to watch.

Of all the superior written works within the period and genre, Gerwig made a remarkable case for why “Little Women” still matters. Definitely check this one out.

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