Bold classic: Greta Gerwig takes Little Women to new heights

Little Women’s outstanding cast and the savvy direction of Greta Gerwig make for a refreshing take on the literary classic. Image courtesy Columbia Pictures Little Women’s outstanding cast and the savvy direction of Greta Gerwig make for a refreshing take on the literary classic. Image courtesy Columbia Pictures

It would be against the spirit of Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women to compare it to other versions, particularly the 1994 one directed by Gillian Armstrong. Just as the March sisters are all different yet equally deserving of a fair shot at happiness, so too does each adaptation tap into a separate aspect of Louisa May Alcott’s enduring tale of family. If you have a particular attachment to Katharine Hepburn or Winona Ryder as Jo, you need not put that aside in order to appreciate Saoirse Ronan.

What sets Gerwig’s film apart is the way she modernizes the story while preserving the time in which it was written. It’s stylistically bold yet thoroughly classic, adding an inventive nonlinear structure. The characters are true to the text yet deepened, but not artificially inflated. And perhaps most impressively, Gerwig’s metanarrative feels decidedly un-meta, growing naturally from the story as if it had been there all along. How a filmmaker can achieve a postmodern throwback, an innovative-yet-classic work of brilliance on her second feature is, frankly, nothing short of astonishing.

Little Women

PG, 135 minutes

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema

The story follows the irrepressible March family in Civil War-era Massachusetts: sisters Jo, Amy, Meg, and Beth (Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen) live with their mother (Laura Dern) while their father serves in the Union Army. The sisters are always up to something, talking about someone, staging a play, constantly with a whirlwind of energy. Scenes from their youth are juxtaposed with their lives seven years later, showing us how their shared childhood shaped who they’ve become. Along for the ride is Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), a boy from a neighboring family whose charming yet occasionally self-centered demeanor makes him alternately a love interest and object of scorn for Jo and Amy.

One important thing Gerwig does is respect her characters. She doesn’t reduce them to one trait nor does she talk down to the very real emotions of young people. Jo is a born storyteller and just as driven as any successful man, but cares about others as much as her ambition. When she considers leaving her writing career behind to marry, it truly stings because we know how hard she has worked and how much she thrives in the company of those she loves. When Amy pursues a mature career after a lifetime of being a near terror to Jo, we can see the pride and regret in her eyes. And when Laurie grows up, his journey is deeper than losing his spoiled tendencies.

(It would be a crime not to mention the exceptional supporting cast. There are no small parts here, and though Ronan and Pugh shine, everybody enhances the story, including Watson, Dern, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, and others too numerous to name.)

Though Little Women is a massive leap in technique and style for Gerwig, it is a continuation of themes she’s explored in her previous work, as writer-director of Lady Bird and co-writer and star of Francis Ha—finding balance between who you are and who you want to become, discovering the moment you can no longer coast through life, and accepting responsibility without losing your most cherished traits. That she’s made such a personal story from an internationally renowned novel, and managed to innovate a text that has been beloved for a century and a half, updating the plot and characters without robbing them of their time and place, is a subtle miracle.

Local theater listings

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 375 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056.

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213.

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000.

See it again

Xanadu (glow-along)

PG, 96 minutes

January 11, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

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