‘Little Women’ charming, too difficult to follow

Look at the pretty dresses from the 1860s! Aren’t they so charming. Images courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing.

4/10 Louisa May Alcott’s original novel “Little Women” was published in two volumes in 1868 and ’69 straddling a three-year in-narrative timeskip, then published as a single volume in 1880. In this, the seventh film adaptation of the material, writer/director Greta Gerwig tried to keep things fresh by mixing up the framing device, and it doesn’t work even a little bit.

In Little Women, four sisters, Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth March (Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanien), grow up during the Civil War. In a series of scenes set over a period of years laid out seemingly at random, they angst about women’s lots in life in the 1860s, disease, boys, money and other petty squabbles as they grow up to become little women.

The timeline’s mixed up and I can’t make heads or tails of it. The film has maybe the most jumbled timeline I’ve seen since (500) Days of Summer, but that of course had the helpful counter ahead of every scene to keep viewers oriented. Little Women is completely without anchor. Every scene is bathed in a heavy glow of either blue or yellow and I initially thought that was the before/after indicator, but that split breaks down after a few minutes. Jo cuts her hair at one point, but that never becomes useful as an orienting device – I think it grows back to the exact length and texture it was before? I really don’t know.

Normally when a movie is difficult to follow, I blame myself or find some other reason to give the movie the benefit of the doubt, but this is beyond the pale. I was explaining Inception and Looper to people in the theater, I should not be confused by an adaptation of Little Women.

Maybe it would be easier if I remembered the book better. The whole project seems to be aimed at people who already know the story, and there’s definite merit to that for something this universal, but then, is it really all that universal? I remember reading a watered-down kids version of it in fifth grade – that was during a stretch when we were supposed to read 30 classics in 30 days for a campaign that was mostly designed to move Scholastic’s back catalogue, obviously I don’t remember any of them – it’s definitely stayed in the zeitgeist with multiple stage and screen adaptations. The story’s entry-level feminism is universal, but what was certainly radical for the book’s publication 40 years before suffrage loses a bit of its shock-and-awe today.

Gerwig brings in a few story tweaks, most notably making the narrative explicitly Jo’s novelization and making her an explicit stand-in for Alcott. Given that “Little Women” is already generally accepted by historians as autobiographical and Jo is such an obvious author surrogate generally speaking, it doesn’t add much, and from a narrative standpoint, it doesn’t recontextualize anything about the story. In a shocking twist, we learn that these fictional characters were actually fictional the entire time. Mind blown?

One of the ways “Little Women” has aged the worst over the years is its male lead, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Chalamet), who proposes to both Jo and Amy, presumably on opposite sides of the three-year timeskip I can’t even begin to identify. A character who was charming as recently as the emo ’00s comes across as dopey and a bit creepy today.

I may have no idea what’s happening the entire runtime, but the emotions are clear. The highs are delightful, and the lows are, well I can identify them, at least. The lead actresses have a ton of chemistry and are all clearly having a wonderful time. Pugh in particular elevates herself to the point of self-satire through sheer force of ham.  

The film is much more charming than it is good, and in this way it echoes Gerwig’s previous entry, Lady Bird, another amorphously charming story about Saorise Ronan growing up that also seemingly cornered the market for calls to make sure a woman was among their years’ Best Director nominees, and that’s weird and concerning. The “nominate at least one woman” crowd has always missed the forest for the trees – the problem isn’t that women don’t get nominated, the problem is they get so few opportunities in the first place that a distinct lack of recognition is almost a statistical certainty. If there are 347 movies from 2019 up for Oscar consideration and only 14 of them were directed solo by women, unless you step on the scales a bit, zero female Best Director nominees year over year is what you’re going to get. Insisting at least one of them be nominated at the end isn’t feminism, feminism would be insisting there are more than a small handful of women getting into the director’s chair in the first place. Insisting one of them be nominated is tokenism.

That tokenism has focused heavily on Gerwig’s first two movies, which has lead to systemic outsized praise. They’re charming enough and are certainly connecting with a lot of people, but I need to see more from her than vague charm, and I need to see her telling more than one story. 

If you really need to bang the “nominate at least one woman” drum, may I recommend Melina Matsoukas’ November release Queen and Slim. 

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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