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Reel Review: ‘Little Women’

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The classic Civil War-era coming-of-age tale, written by Louisa May Alcott in the late 1860s, is now on the big screen—and with a star-studded cast. COURTESY OF COLUMBIA PICTURES

4/5 Stars

By Anna Husted EBS FILM CRITIC

“I want it to be great, or nothing,” says Amy March (Florence Pugh) regarding her painting in director Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of “Little Women.” Surely Gerwig was channeling Amy’s sentiment because “Little Women” is—while taking a different ending than the book—great.

Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 coming-of-age novel is about four sisters during the Civil War, each with their own worldview despite being under their mother’s tender care. Meg (Emma Watson) is the oldest and most levelheaded, Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is the writer and feminist, Amy is destined for great things, and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is the caregiver.

Gerwig tells the story in flashbacks mostly from Jo’s perspective rather than telling the story chronologically as Alcott does. This time-hopping sensation gives the film a modern identity and in the end gives life to the sisters where the novel ends in the author succumbing to the times.

“Little Women” has been adapted for the screen five times, each adaptation more thoughtful than the last. Gerwig’s adaption, however, was the first one where I liked Amy March. Part of this is due to Pugh’s acting range, giving her character depth of soul and not just selfish tears and complaints. The other part is Gerwig’s dialogue: she teeters between 19th century proper English and unorthodox modern American English.

For example, when Amy talks about love to their childhood friend, Laurie (Timotheé Chalamet) she says, “It isn’t something that just happens to a person.” Their attitudes toward each other are informal, even in a formal setting. At another point, Laurie attends a New Year’s party drunk and Amy yells at him in public. These realistic sensibilities give “Little Women” a fresh life.    

Each sister is masterfully shot: Low angles frame Jo as she navigates New York City and her new role as family provider, while Beth is shot in close-ups and soft light as she cares for their impoverished neighbors. Gerwig’s camera and her ability to get her actors to speak and move naturally makes her style light and uninhibited.

By far, Gerwig’s direction is what gives this adaptation its charm, but not without Ronan, Pugh, and Chalamet does this version of “Little Women” work. Pugh is not afraid to dominate the screen, even overshadowing strong-featured, young heartthrob Chalamet. They compliment each other’s movements well. Chalamet’s Laurie is abashed and fluid, while Pugh’s Amy is strong-willed and confident. It’s no coincidence these two actors have appeared only in great films over the past three years.

While much has been said about Ronan’s dominance as the lead character Jo, I would argue that this version of “Little Women” belongs to Pugh’s Amy. Amy has never been written with the complexity that she has here, shown through her differing relationships with each character.   

“Little Women” is my favorite movie of 2019. I’m still catching up with films that may bump it from the top spot, but that’s unlikely. Gerwig and her cast bring passion, love and weightlessness to this timeless story.

“Little Women” is now showing in theaters.

Anna Husted has a master’s in film studies from New York University. In Big Sky she can be found skiing or at the movies at Lone Peak Cinema. When not gazing at the silver screen or watching her new favorite TV show, she’s reading, fishing or roughhousing with her cat, Indiana Jones.

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