There are a few things that need to be addressed when talking about Little Women (2019). For starters, the fears brought up by yet another adaptation of an uppity 19th century novel that’s been immortalized countless times in countless films are valid, there’s truly little cultural capital gained by telling the same stories over and over again. It’s disheartening seeing up-and-coming filmmakers delve back into the same pools other filmmakers have already been in, as opposed to telling original stories, and as someone with no relationship to Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel, the idea of Greta Gerwig jumping from the personal and fresh Lady Bird to an adaptation of a classic, disappointed me. With all of that said, as much as the cynic or the fighter for original stories in me wanted to not fall head over heels for Little Women, I left the theater charmed, rebuilt, and in love with one of the most notable and affirming films in a long time.
Twisting the structure of the novel so the two ends of the timeline run parallel to each other, Little Women tells the famous story of the March sisters, Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), as they grow up and balance love, artistic passions, and the expectations of the world around them over a seven year period. The new structure is the key here, finding unique ways of compacting the story and wringing new emotions out of the various images and scenes placed next to each other. Even without a prior affection for the novel, it’s clear that the movie is taken from literature, with pieces of dialogue feeling out of place not in their creation but in its pace. Scenes will end with lines that feel like chapter breaks, so without the breathing room of putting the book down and grabbing a snack, some of the lines lose their impact and feel stilted. With that negative though, the streamlining of the novel’s literary techniques boost the film, revealing a relationship with the original text that is as reverent as many other films’ relationship with their texts, but without the painful adherence that cripples so many films’ potentials. Little Women is beholden to the style of writing that birthed the story in the same way early silent films are beholden to vaudeville performing: it offers a clear line of succession from one art form to the next, but it still makes the absolute most of its new storytelling techniques.
The way the camera moves, how scenes are intercut with each other, and the clashing styles of performance all breathe an immediate sense of purpose and life into the film, leaning towards a sweeping comedic style that let the film’s sense of humor work in tandem with the tragedy and tales of maturity that are always found in seminal 19th century works. If Lady Bird was Gerwig’s mark of talent as a writer, Little Women is her mark of talent as a director, the camera, Alcott’s writing, and Gerwig’s adapted script all dancing in their own off-center time like Jo and Laurie spinning past windows. Hours after the film’s end, the smallest moments are what stick out, the microscopic pieces of performance and editing that communicate pages and paragraphs with ease. None of these emotions are ungodly complex or new, but they’re communicated with such grace and precision that any notions of staleness are forgotten, because good storytelling can never go sour.
That’s the main dissonance when writing about Little Women: it does everything right but I do not want to gush on and praise something so beloved and canonized. And then I remember the belly laughs, the multiple tears shed, and the few moments where I recognized, shamefully, a feeling from my life painted in front of me. And then I remember everyone else. There are two kinds of movies that stick with you, movies that remind you of yourself, and movies that remind you of those you love. When watching these characters grow, fail, and hope, I saw my two sisters, my four brothers, and countless other loved ones. These sorts of films are far rarer, and I think far more special, demanding empathy and worldliness from an insular experience like watching a movie in a dark room that nobody is allowed to communicate in. Little Women is one of those movies that makes you call people you love and tell them you love them, because seeing human beings so eloquently express the way life and memories feel is a powerful experience.
Little Women is one of the few films from 2019 that I would truly recommend to every person I know, and the only time this year where I didn’t mean that as somewhat of an insult. It is universal without being watered down, uplifting without being cloying, and powerful without being trite or self-obsessed. It’s a boringly stellar film, the sort of movie that elicits emotions in a classical way, like the movie was built with the sole goal of ending up on a ‘intro to film’ course you can take in college for an easy A. I don’t know if everyone will be as moved by Little Women as I was, and maybe it’s the Christmas spirit in me, but I would be wary of anyone who didn’t walk out of the film without at least a hopeful smile. Simply put, the movie won. I don’t care that it’s another adaptation, I don’t care that some lines feel out of place, I don’t even care that Emma Watson still can’t do an American accent, because the movie remains truly exceptional despite any ultimately unconvincing complaints. It is one of the great American achievements of the year, offering magic for 2 hours and 15 minutes and leaving the audience in a better place than it finds them. Maybe I’m just a sap, or maybe I’m just in a spectacular mood after the film, but if a film can put me in this good of a mood, doesn’t that cement how successful it is?