“I [have] had lots of troubles; so I write jolly tales,” Louisa May Alcott once quipped of her career. This blithe, self-effacing remark, tinged with melancholy, is the opening epigraph for Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Alcott’s mightiest novel, Little Women—and it’s a perfect summation of the sharp but wistful tone that defined Alcott’s work. Gerwig captures that mood with this film, a sparklingly clever new take that remixes the book’s timeline while maintaining its perfect balance of joy and sadness. There are plenty of troubles in Little Women, but that doesn’t mean things can’t also be jolly.
This same spirit defined Gerwig’s last directorial effort, the sensational Lady Bird, which starred Saoirse Ronan as a passionate and hilarious teenager just beginning to grapple with what she wants from life. Though Lady Bird is rooted in Gerwig’s own youth and Little Women draws from a totemic piece of 19th-century American literature, both films are stories of families struggling to stay solvent and girls trying to carve out their independence on the way to adulthood. In short, Gerwig is an outstanding match for this material and has produced one of the best films of the year.
Gerwig has reunited with Ronan for Little Women, and the actress slides comfortably into the role of Jo, the most rebellious member of the March family and the character most obviously based on Alcott herself. Gerwig’s screenplay brackets the story with Jo’s aspirations as a writer, opening with a grown-up Jo trying to sell her stories to the curmudgeonly Mr. Dashwood (played by Tracy Letts). From there, the film flits back and forth in time, moving between the novel’s two sections (one set in the March girls’ teenage years, one set after most of them have left the family home) and eschewing the simpler progression of Alcott’s story line, which builds from childhood hijinks to weightier episodes of marriage and death.