In Greta Gerwig’s new film adaptation of Little Women, as the strong-willed Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) embarks on her writing career, her publisher (Tracy Letts) gives her some advice. If her main character is a woman, the story should end with her married or dead. The character must fall into a specific definition of womanhood, made more palatable for public consumption. Though Jo is living in the 1860s, similar rules still exist for female characters in popular culture today — hence the paper-thin female-led reboots of originally male-led movies, and facile ideas of what makes a female character strong. What makes Little Women particularly refreshing is that Gerwig treats the four March sisters as equals, rather than as right or wrong for wanting different things.
Eldest sibling Meg (Emma Watson) is the domestic; among her sisters, she’s the best at taking care of the household. Unlike Jo, she wants to get married and have a family of her own. Jo is the most free-spirited sister, tomboyish and determined to have as much agency over her life as any man would have over his. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is the shy one whose passion lies in music, rather than in an attempt to fly the coop like her sisters. Youngest sister Amy (Florence Pugh) is arguably Jo’s opposite, embracing stereotypically feminine ideas of beauty and propriety. She’s haughty where Jo is hot-tempered.
The film, based on Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, skips back and forth through time rather than unfolding chronologically. The sisters’ adolescence and young adulthood are shown in parallel, with Gerwig and editor Nick Houy making the transition between the two easily distinguishable by subtle shifts in color palette (the past generally uses warmer colors) as well as through characters’ hairstyles. As children, they’re bonded partially by necessity. They’re helping their mother (Laura Dern) make ends meet as their father (Bob Odenkirk) serves as a pastor in the Civil War. As young women, they’ve scattered, and they’re reckoning with where their desires in life have brought them, and with the expectations placed on women at the time.
Gerwig gives each sister her fair shake. As the siblings grow into and through their teenage years, their disparate personalities and desires bring them into conflict, but Gerwig never allows any one March sister to come across as a villain. Their relationships with each other (and their lives in general) aren’t so black and white, and none of them are treated as foolish or lesser for what they want, even though they all want very different things. Even heartthrob Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), a force of chaos who captures both Jo’s and Amy’s attention, can’t tip the scales too far.
That nuance is clearest in the dynamic between Jo and Amy, who lash out at each other, accusing each other of wrong or shallow choices. But Gerwig casts no such judgment on either of them. They’re both making the best of the patriarchal society they live in, with Amy understanding that she’ll marry for financial stability rather than love, and that her talent for art isn’t enough to grant her independence as a woman. And Jo submits to her publisher’s revisions to her short stories and novels because she knows there’s no other way they will get published, and earning money to help support her family is more important than her artistic integrity.
Though most of Gerwig’s attention is on Jo, the evenhandedness with which she treats the whole family makes Little Women less a story about pursuing your dreams at any cost, and more about the value of kindness. One of the most affecting parts of the film is the burgeoning friendship between Beth and Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), an older gentleman who lives nearby. There’s little dialogue between them — they communicate largely through gestures. Beth is grateful for being able to come play the piano in his home, while he appreciates the simple comfort of her music. At the beginning of the film, it’s assumed that he’s a grouch and a recluse, but Beth’s kindness toward him reveals kindness in return.
That may seem like a saccharine message, but Gerwig keeps the story in motion to the point where it’s difficult not to simply be swept up. The camera moves along with Jo as she rushes from one thought to the next, not only conveying a sense of her character, but a feeling of movement, growth, and freedom. The rush of youthful energy makes the film all the more affecting when it slows down, painting a comprehensive picture of the ups and downs of life rather than settling for something rose-colored.
All their lives have meaning and importance, even if conventional pop culture wisdom or society might say otherwise. Meg isn’t lesser for wanting to get married, nor is Amy for being more stereotypically feminine, nor is Jo for being more stereotypically masculine in dress and behavior. As in Lady Bird, Gerwig allows her characters to be unconventional and selfish — that is, everything the stereotypical heroine isn’t supposed to be. It feels empowering to see four distinct women who all fall into different molds being treated respectfully, as though their decisions and personalities are all valid.
Apart from one scene that feels like a belated, unnecessary recognition of the lack of racial diversity in the cast, the film doesn’t strike a single false note. It carries viewers through the lives of four very different women without picking any one to be the “right” way of doing things. The cast is uniformly wonderful as well, with Pugh in particular perfectly embodying the way fits of youthful pique can get the better of us when we are denied the things we want. That degree of earnestness — and love for both the joyful and bittersweet parts of life — makes Little Women a pure joy.
Little Women opens in theaters Dec. 25.