“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.
The clever twist of this new film, versus worthy older adaptations such as Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version, is that it puts Alcott’s sunnier and sadder sides in conversation with each other. The action cuts between whimsical larks and their more sober parallels. The teenage Jo dances outside with her handsome neighbor, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), after meeting him at a party; years later, her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) runs into a lovelorn and despondent Laurie in France. For book readers who know how the story progresses, the connections Gerwig draws provide fascinating perspective. For newcomers, there’s still plenty to discover.
Much as in Lady Bird, Gerwig excels at portraying the spirit and energy of a bustling home, in which family tensions can cross from fraught to exuberant and back again in seconds. Along with the creative Jo and the willful Amy, the Marches include the doting big sister, Meg (Emma Watson), the introverted Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and the loving matriarch, Marmee (Laura Dern). Dern plays Marmee as a glowing oven of warmth and kindness, trying to maintain her family’s sanity while her husband (Bob Odenkirk) is serving in the Union Army during the Civil War.
The entire ensemble is terrific, but Pugh is the standout, turning Amy—long the novel’s problem character, given to stoking spiteful sibling rivalries—into a heroine as rich and compelling as Jo. Her performance is bolstered by Gerwig’s bifurcated narrative structure; Amy is a bit of a silly creature as a youngster, but grows up to be surprisingly levelheaded, and that leap forward makes more sense when the character’s journey is seen in parallel rather than linearly. Pugh emphasizes Amy’s headstrong nature in both timelines, while highlighting the subtle ways it shifts from petulance to fearsome intelligence over the years.
The same trick works wonderfully for the stories involving Laurie (who initially pines for Jo), Meg (who craves a more pedestrian future than her sisters), and Beth (the character who comes to the saddest fate in the novel). Far from challenging Alcott’s storytelling, the movie’s structural changes illuminate the completeness of each character’s arc. Gerwig is revealing the strength of Alcott’s work, a point she underscores with the framing device of Jo’s literary efforts. Like her author, the character is fighting to pursue a creative career in a time when women’s stories were largely judged as inferior.
All of this builds to a rather daring ending, in which Gerwig dutifully preserves the novel’s final twists—which wrap everything up neatly, as Alcott’s editors likely demanded—while also casting a skeptical eye at their tidiness. After all, given the emotional realism of every intimate scene and crackling conversation, it’s hard to imagine everything in this film ending smoothly. Gerwig manages to honor both the letter and the spirit of Alcott’s tale; Little Women is stuffed with trials and tribulations, yet overflowing with goodwill, just as Alcott described it herself.