Little Women has two parallel timelines. There’s the present, starting in post-Civil War New York City with teacher and pulp writer Saoirse Ronan living in boarding house (where she also teaches). Then it flashes back to Ronan’s life seven years earlier, at home in rural Massachusetts; she’s the second oldest of four sisters; oldest is Emma Watson, youngest is Eliza Scanlen, Florence Pugh is second-youngest. Pugh sees Ronan as an adversary for the world’s attention while Ronan might see Pugh as annoyance but often doesn’t see her at all. For the first half of the film, the flashbacks are steady. We meet mom Laura Dern, who volunteers all her time to help the war effort, the husband and father off in the (Union) Army, the girls fending for themselves as far as attention goes.
Ronan’s always been the writer—writing plays for them to act out—Watson’s the actor, Pugh’s the painter, Scanlen’s the musician. The flashbacks reveal how these talents flourished during the home front days. At a party, Ronan meets the new neighbor, similarly aged Timothée Chalamet, newly orphaned and now living with his grandfather, rich guy Chris Cooper. Chalamet and Ronan are both socially awkward wallflowers but extroverted ones, so they immediately hit it off. And through Chalamet, the families reconnect and become good friends, with Cooper opening his house to the sisters, offering to share in the intellectual wealth. There are books for Ronan, paintings for Pugh, a piano for Scanlen… and James Norton for Watson.
Norton is Chalamet’s tutor, penniless and just the right kind of dreamy for Watson.
Of course, seeing them meet and gently fall in love comes in a different context thanks to director (and screenwriter) Gerwig’s bifurcated narrative. We’ve seen their less than glamorous present—in fact, when they marry and move into the same house we’ve seen in the future… it’s a bittersweet moment. Watson’s the one sister with the express dream of having a family and while Ronan can still write, Pugh can still paint, Watson’s getting frustrated. So her flashbacks have the shadow of the future cast against them, which really neatly resolves in an echo in the third act, but still… it’s rough seeing her dreams stalling.
Pugh’s also giving up on her dreams in the present, deciding she’s only ever going to be an excellent painter and never a genius, even though she agrees with Chalamet the all-male academy in charge of assigning genius is severely wanting. The film’s got a lot of discussions about a woman’s potential, but the ones between Pugh and Chalamet are striking, maybe because the most we know abut Chalamet to start is Ronan’s going to turn down a marriage proposal someday. Even as the film—in the present—discusses events in the past, Gerwig never goes so far as to promise they’re going to get played out onscreen. So when the film actually does the marriage proposal flashback and it cuts through Chalamet and Ronan; even though we’ve spent most of the film with them past this trauma, it’s even sharper, even bloodier, for knowing the characters better. For having seen them develop to this point and then past it.
Little Women’s flashback device is fairly singular. It’s not a piece where the story is in the flashback (but it’s also not one where the story isn’t in the flashback), it’s not a piece where the protagonist drifts between; in fact, once you realize what’s going on in the present, the film checking in with anyone besides Ronan is mildly unwelcome. There’s nothing good waiting in the present for anyone it seems, whereas the past is full of laughter, music, dancing, celebration. But the flashbacks also aren’t for happy moments, the present for the sad. And even when the correspond with one another, even when Gerwig’s doing it for best effect, they’re not for echoing either. Gerwig’s an exceptionally “hands off” director as far as style goes, she never tries to show up the unfolding production; every choice furthers the film as a whole. The flashbacks and the present compliment one another for the film’s sake, which isn’t even the same thing as for the characters’ sake. Ronan and Pugh in the present get character studies while Watson gets some of one in the past, but Gerwig uses that approach to further things later on. Ronan and Pugh’s adversarial relationship exists mostly in the characters’ (and viewers’) perceptions. The tight focus on the actors in the first act and half means later on, when Gerwig’s got a lot more group-based, epical action to deal with, Ronan, Pugh, and Watson have a lot more inherent heft.
Meanwhile Scanlen, grown up watching her sisters and seeing their hopes and dreams rise and fall, has wisdom, just not the wisdom her sisters need (or know they need) because it’s all very messy. Of the four sisters, Scanlen is the one with the most obvious possibility for her talent. The stage isn’t in Watson’s cards because she’s too middle class, Pugh and Ronan have major obstacles in any pursuit to get paid for their artistic talents, but Scanlen’s piano playing seems within the realm of possibility. Not too lofty a dream for a young woman in the late nineteenth century.
All of the sisters, in one way or another, are acutely aware of their situations. Watson knows marrying penniless but dreamy Norton means hard work and a hard life. Ronan and Pugh both know a woman’s best potential from rich aunt Meryl Streep, who revels in crushing her nieces’ artistic dreams with the hard facts about what a woman can and cannot do. Well, she revels in it initially, but once Streep gets talking about the situation, the mean-spiritedness fades fast, as she hears the terrible words she’s speaking. The best any of the sisters can hope for is Pugh marrying a rich man who’ll let her take care of them all, including parents Dern and Bob Odenkirk. When we finally get to see Streep and Odenkirk together, after she’s spent the film running him down, is a fantastic moment; Gerwig’s able to get in emotional gut punches thanks to the flashback structure, but she’s also able reverse it and fill the moments with joy.
The film’s constant isn’t joy, however, not on its own. It’s anger. And maybe joy in spite of anger. Maybe at the start of the second act, in flashback, Dern has a talk with Ronan about how Dern—who we’ve seen as a homemaking saint to this point—has a secret no one has ever guessed. Well, except maybe Streep. She lives in a constant state of anger at the world, at the unfairness of it, the evil in it, and refuses to let it better her.
At this moment, Dern frankly becomes the most interesting performance in the entire film. She and Ronan are phenomenal together and Ronan’s great, Pugh’s great, Chalamet’s excellent, but when Dern’s in a scene, you watch Dern. You want to understand how Dern is getting through this moment. But also Ronan. Ronan’s inherited the blinding anger and works to quell it, which—again thanks to the structure—informs all her scenes previous to the conversation with Dern… including the present day ones. The flashbacks inform on the characters in the present, sort of bake in textures in real-time, but with Ronan, it’s like she gets an additional two layers of depth with the wave of a wand or flick of a fountain pen. It’s awesome.
Because even with—I think dazzling is the about the only appropriately enthusiastic adjective—even with dazzling performances from Pugh, Chalamet, Dern, Streep, and excellent ones from Watson, Scanlen, Cooper, it’s Ronan’s film. Gerwig gives her this big silent acting moment, when what plays across Ronan’s face is what Little Women leaves its audience with, it’s all about Ronan. And her anger and her joy. And what she does with both of them. It’s a breathtaking finale, with the film’s perfect score (by Alexandre Desplat) accompanying. Even though she’s adapting an oft-adapted novel, Gerwig pushes the ending until it’s right for the adaptation, collapsing flashback and flash forward, dream and reality, until it can hinge solely on Ronan’s expressions as she reacts to the culminating moment.
And Gerwig and Ronan nail it because of course they do. The last thirty minutes of Little Women, if it didn’t bombard the emotions, tugging and shoving between happy angry sobs and sad angry sobs—I’m not even sure why I was crying at the very end, though I know Desplat didn’t help—the last thirty minutes would be a victory lap. Just due to the nature of the plot, Gerwig’s hardest “sell” comes at the end of the second act, beginning of the third. So when she and the film are able to keep climbing instead of just sailing to the finish, it’s glorious. And sad. And joyous. And sad.
It’s spectacular work. Everything technical is outstanding—Gerwig’s direction, Yorick Le Saux’s photography, Nick Houy’s editing, Desplat’s music, Jess Gonchor’s production design is breathtaking; Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are superlative. Little Women looks—and sounds (not just the score, the sound editing is great)—amazing.
I mean, it’s capital, obviously.
Directed by Greta Gerwig; screenplay by Gerwig, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott; director of photography, Yorick Le Saux; edited by Nick Houy; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Jess Gonchor; costume designer, Jacqueline Durran; produced by Amy Pascal, Denise Di Novi, and Robin Swicord; released by Columbia Pictures.
Starring Saoirse Ronan (Jo March), Emma Watson (Meg March), Florence Pugh (Amy March), Eliza Scanlen (Beth March), Laura Dern (Marmee March), Timothée Chalamet (Laurie), Tracy Letts (Mr. Dashwood), Bob Odenkirk (Father March), James Norton (John Brooke), Louis Garrel (Friedrich Bhaer), Jayne Houdyshell (Hannah), Chris Cooper (Mr. Laurence), and Meryl Streep (Aunt March).