Grackles review Little Women
Directed by Greta Gerwig
Reviewed by Colleen Mayo and Kat Moore
Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film adaptation of the classic period novel by Louisa May Alcott follows the coming of age of the March sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and Amy (Florence Pugh) while they play, grow, and navigate womanhood in Civil-War era Massachusetts.
Gerwig structures the story differently from the book and previous movie adaptations. Rather than proceed chronologically, the film switches between the novel’s two main timelines: in childhood, the four girls live humbly with their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) while their father serves as a pastor in the Union Army. Next door is their wealthy neighbored Mr. Laurence and his grandson, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Chalamet). In adulthood, the women have spread out. Meg has married and now lives with her husband. Jo lives in a boarding house in New York where she works as a governess, publishes her adventure stories, and develops a deep friendship with the German professor Friedrich Bhaer. Beth struggles with her health at home in Concord MA. Amy is busy painting and pursuing a potential marriage proposal in Paris with the girls’ rich Aunt March, whose itchy stuffiness is played to perfection by Meryl Streep.
Colleen Mayo: Now! I am of the legion of women who grew up cherishing Alcott’s novel. In 7th grade, I auditioned for the role of Jo March in a middle school production of the play (and received a nameless role with two lines and consoled myself by saying I was a writer not an actress, like Jo). I give this disclaimer to say I’m the viewer who is expecting certain iconic scenes. I’ve got nostalgia tangled up in each and every March-sister experience. Jo must burn Meg’s hair. Amy must obsess over having limes at school. Beth must play Mr. Laurence’s piano, and so on. Gerwig’s adaptation not only delivers on these childhood moments, but she gives them with such life and movement that the characters feel at once familiar and new. What a gift! It truly surprised me—I was expecting to like the film but not for it to connect with me as an adult while also reopening my whole eleven-year-old heart. In particular I adore the ensemble scenes, where we get to step back and watch all four little women whoosh and churn across the screen, chortling and chatting and ricocheting off one another. It’s thrilling to watch them have four different conversations at once, each revealing to us their own personalities and also their intricate relationships with one another.
Looking at the girls individually, the top surprise for me was Amy. Florence Pugh’s Amy is delicious: she is theatrical and girlish and silly just as we remember her (she attempts to make a plaster cast of her perfect feet for Laurie). And yet, in adulthood, she is self-possessed and electrifyingly direct. This shift is highlighted by the films’ split timeline, which often juxtaposes the women’s adult circumstances next to key moments from their childhood. Along with Jo, Amy’s character is obviously predestined to make some of the novel’s most significant decisions—that’s how Alcott wrote her, after all—but I’m making my pitch that Florence Pugh delivers the film’s richest performance.
Kat Moore: I have to admit that I never read the book. I know, it’s shocking, especially since I am always shouting about the importance of women’s voices! But as a child, I wasn’t exposed to it, and when the Winona Ryder Little Women came out, I did not enjoy it. I was still all about Winona being weird an edgy, and in my punk rock adolescent, I didn’t get that Jo was weird and edgy. I probably should re-watch that version through the eyes of who I am now. I didn’t want to see Gerwig’s version. I actually rolled my eyes at it, until, I was waiting for another movie to come on and the trailer for Little Women played. The trailer was electric. The dancing between Jo and Laurie, the squeals of the women. I saw the film on Christmas Day and cried my face off. Also, Florence Pugh…another confession, I wasn’t expecting Florence to wow me, but she did. As a young Amy, she is squealy, and loud, and bratty, all the stereotypical adolescent girl traits, the traits that are always deemed too feminine, too obnoxious. I loved all of those traits as portrayed by Florence. I think her performance as Amy is part of why I adored her in this, but I also think it’s because I have come to embrace those feminine traits, like emotions, that get a bad rap. I think film-goers were more open to it too, and that, combined with Gerwig’s direction and Pugh’s performance, really made it resonate. Plus, she grows from a girl into a young woman who understands the world and that, sadly, it isn’t a woman’s place, and therefore, her options are limited. But in the end, she gets what she wants. Love and money. I’m all for women getting what they want.
This brings me back to the structure, which you mentioned. It isn’t linear. The film traverses back and forth in time. It’s episodic and nonlinear, which critic Rita Felski has described as a trait of feminine writing. That because of societal structures, women’s writing is often partly about the domestic, and is usually episodic and nonlinear because of all the disruptions that occur in women’s lives as a result of their domestic duties. Gerwig’s chosen structure challenges the Aristotelian structure of beginning, middle, and end. And while Pugh stands out, it is still Jo who is the center. It is Jo’s story, and, like the form of the film, she challenges social constructs.
Editor’s Note: It is true that the source material for this film is a very old novel. Nevertheless, we’ll warn you that there are spoilers below.
CM: I love your attention to the feminism of the film’s nonlinear structure. Jo and her story are rebellious and nontraditional and resist the expectations of nearly every surrounding force. The film’s structure therefore moves lockstep with one of its feminist themes: the birth of a female artist. The movie opens with Jo selling one of her stories to a male newspaper editor in New York City. The stories Jo is able to sell are blustering adventure stories within which any female characters should, as advised by the editor, get married or be killed off. Jo receives the same flavor of advice about her own future from Aunt March. So, in both her personal and professional life, Jo is directed to tame herself. But instead she refuses marriage. Instead she leaves home and makes her own adventure, plots out an alternative future for herself. At the same time is the pull to write honestly about her life, what she calls her family’s “domestic joys and struggles”. The movie’s nonlinear structure brings us into Jo’s memories. In the present timeline, she is finding her voice and independence as a writer in New York when she is called back home to see her sister Beth, who is in poor health. Being home triggers childhood memories for Jo, which we experience alongside current hardships. The film’s movement between present and past creates this rich bridge that illustrates how Jo’s writer mind works. We see how, in adulthood, she has been shaped by the powerful episodes and lessons from her childhood. I think one of the most moving examples of this are the scenes leading up to Beth’s death, in which Jo’s memory is constantly rerouting us back to the first time Beth was seriously ill, when she survived. Even though I knew the story—I knew Beth would die—this presentation of Beth’s death opened up a new emotional resonance that spoke both to the pain of this loss and also to the effect Beth’s death had on Jo’s writing. It’s also back at home that adult Jo must face Laurie again and that she must make a choice on how to treat Amy. It’s returning home, remembering the joys and facing the struggles that leads Jo to realize her “domestic” life is a story worth writing about.
KM: That is exactly my favorite element of the film. The way each episode is juxtaposed to reveal how it shaped Jo, her interior and external life. It is very essayistic in that regard. You mentioned the editor telling Jo that the female character has to be married or dead by the end of the story, and that really exposes what women writers have always gone through, and how “taste” or style has so often been based on the preference of men. How scary that the character preference for women was once dead or married, meaning no autonomy, no life of their own, or no life at all. And while the movie is about a white family, white women, and doesn’t move beyond this, it made think of how when race or sexuality intersects, there are even more oppressive tropes that hegemony demands. The movie really subverts the idea that the universal character is the white male. The editor first rejects Jo’s novel. He wants her to go back to writing for his male audience like she did in her stories that he previously published. Stories of violence. And yes, it is Beth’s death that makes Jo write from the heart, write what she really wants to write about, what she really cares about, instead of just writing for the purpose of publication. Jo, full of doubt and apologies which is how women were taught to be, sends it to the editor, he rejects it, but then comes a scene I adore. The editor is in his home. His daughter’s run into the room squealing, “What happened to the little women?” They had been reading Jo’s book, the one he rejected, and they wanted more, and they demanded more. I adore this scene because it takes seriously the interior and external lives of little girls. It doesn’t downgrade Jo’s book to “chick lit,” but instead shows that the little girls are a worthy audience, worthy consumers of art. Of course, she still has change to the ending. I have read that Alcott didn’t want Jo to be married at the end. There has been a lot of pushback against the way Gerwig handled this, but I thought it was brilliant. It is ambiguous and makes me wonder if I am to read the movie as Jo did marry, or she didn’t marry, and only married her character off in the book. The final scene at the school has Federic in it, but that also doesn’t mean they are married.
CM: That line “What happened to the little women?” made me cheer in the movie theatre, a loud F-yeah cheer. I hadn’t known that Alcott didn’t want Jo to be married, but it makes me agree with you that the ambiguous ending is a fitting way for Gerwig to have handled it. Related note that I can’t help but bring in: Oscar nominations have been released as we’ve been conversing about Little Women. In the year we just had (The Farewell, Harriet, Queen & Slim, Little Women), it’s unacceptable that not one female director has received a nomination for best director. How disappointingly fitting with our conversation about female writers.
KM: I’m extremely disappointed in the nominations, but not surprised. So many great films by women, both white and BlPOC, were snubbed. The cinematography, let alone the performances, for Little Women was stunning. The scene with Jo and Beth on the beach, the one where Jo has brought Beth there to help heal her heart, is perfect. The camera is at a low angle, as if it is just below the level of the sand, and the two sisters are higher up in the shot, centered on a blanket, the wind blows their hair, scatters the sand upwards into the air, behind them the grass undulates, and the colors are muted, a gray day. It is such a stark contrast to the scenes inside the house when the sisters are all together. When they are all together, lights sparkle, and their bodies dance, and their giggles delight. Such a beautifully rendered film.
Colleen Mayo’s writing has appeared in Crazyhorse, The Sun Magazine, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She was a 2017 winner of the Creative Writing Spotlight Award for Nonfiction at Florida State University. Colleen lives in Denton, Texas where she is a PhD student in Creative Writing at The University of North Texas.
Kat Moore has essays in Brevity, Diagram, The Rumpus, Entropy, Hippocampus, Whiskey Island, Salt Hill, New South, Split Lip, and others, as well as forthcoming in Passages North. An essay of hers appears in the anthology Bodies of Truth: Personal Narratives on Illness, Disability, and Medicine.