Movie Review: Little Women

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two half stars

PG |

Director: Greta Gerwig

by Jason Koenigsberg

As the decade comes to a close newly minted female auteur Greta Gerwig decided to remake Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel Little Women about four sisters coming of age in the post Civil War United States. The result is a mixed bag which further solidifies that Gerwig is a talented writer and director, but that her feminist qualities are very heavy handed. The message got in the way of the story. The film opens up with a quote from the author and the first shot is the back of a woman’s head against a glass pane on a door so we clearly see the woman’s outline. This is Saoirse Ronan as one of the older sisters about to walk into a publisher (played by a very well used Tracy Letts) to review her book. This version of Little Women, the first major motion picture based on the novel in twenty-five years starts off with a lot of promise and then somehow gets lost as it meanders on, caring more about the message and themes than the actual story. It starts off with such promise and then goes on, and on, and on, that checking your watch in the dark theater becomes routine. This Little Women is good for people trying to take a nap during the day so they can stay up later for an obligation, or for something more fun. 

That being said this version is competently directed. Greta Gerwig showed with Ladybird (2017) that she is a gifted writer and director. Her Little Women has beautiful detailed costumes and soft lighting that make it feel like a period piece and not a hipster adaptation for millennials.  The sweeping camera movements during an early dance sequence bring the viewer into the scene. But then as the plot moves on, the movies pace drags on. One big change that Gerwig made is to edit the film not in chronological order. The narrative going out of order had no dramatic impact and just seemed as if it was done to add a modern spin on the classic story. If anything by going back and forth it took away from the bonds the sisters formed over the years. 

On the bright side there was one standout performance. Florence Pugh is terrific as the third oldest sister. She is surrounded by Academy Award and Golden Globe winners and nominees and she steals the show in every scene she is in. After Fighting with My Family, and Midsommar, to close on her the year with her turn in Little Women is a statement for this young talented actress. 2019 has been an outstanding year for Florence Pugh and there is no reason that she should slow down as she stars in Marvel’s Black Widow next May. Kudos to Florence Pugh. The rest of the actresses in Little Women are serviceable. Saoirse Ronan was stellar for Gerwig in Ladybird but she is simply satisfactory in Little Women. Emma Watson overacts in some of her scenes and Meryl Streep is underused and stuck on comedic relief mode. Only Laura Dern and Timothee Chalamet amount to what they should for their scenes but none have the gravitas Ms. Pugh conveys in her performance to excel in their roles. 

The rest of Little Women is made up of moments that involve themes that transcend their time and try to make the story very much about women in our time. It deals with sibling rivalry. Competition between brothers and sisters has been going on for eternity and will no doubt continue as long as parents have more than one child, nothing remarkable there. This movie emphasizes themes about women’s aspirations during a time when they were not meant to have any. With the #MeToo movement going on and more calls for equality in salary for women in the workplace this theme is extremely relevant today. There is still a lack of opportunity for women in many fields and that is unfortunate. Little Women also deals with class structure, it was important in the 1800’s and is practically just as important today.

One of the best scenes is a monologue from Florence Pugh about women not having their own money, possessions or property, and how everything they work for and own, even their children, all belong to the men. That scene was expertly delivered but it came at a cost of feeling heavy handed and reminding the audience they are in a movie that women’s rights. This film focused on the message instead of the characters. Plus, the story was told out of sequence for no particular reason and that hurt the lasting impact of the picture. This version of Little Women was utilitarian and it ended up feeling boring and empty the longer it went on. 

Skip Little Women and check out Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird instead.

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