Review: 'Little Women' remains relevant, fails to meet hype

by Savannah Miller | 1/7/20 2:00am

I always look forward to winter break for many reasons, an unexpected one of which is Oscar-bait. Oscar-bait season is the first three weeks in December, when movie production studios are racing to put out their “best” films of the year before the Oscar qualification deadline on the last day of the year. Typically, films that receive Oscar nominations are released between August and December.

This year, one of the Oscar contenders I was most excited to see was “Little Women.” “Little Women” is a film written and directed by Greta Gerwig based on the 1868 book by Louisa May Alcott. The story follows the four March sisters during the Civil War as they come of age and pursue their various interests, all of which are artistic in nature. In ascending age order of the sisters, Eliza Scanlen plays Beth, a piano virtuoso; Florence Pugh is Amy, a painter; Saoirse Ronan plays Jo, the writer; and finally, Emma Watson plays Meg, the actress-turned-mom. The story is dominated by Ronan’s Jo and shows how the sisters’ relationships with each other, respective love interests and — most importantly — the family’s financial security develop over several years. Overall, the movie was a successful adaptation, but the character development and film style was uneven. 

It is difficult to watch “Little Women” without thinking of two other movies at the same time: Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” and Ari Aster’s “Midsommar.” Both films led me to have high expectations for “Little Women” due to similar creative teams and performance artists working on the films. The 2017 hit “Lady Bird,” Gerwig’s directorial debut, cemented both Gerwig’s place among the great film creators and established the working relationship between her and Ronan, who played the lead in the film. 

It is not hard to imagine that Gerwig’s own experience with “Lady Bird” informed the production of “Little Women.” Despite mass critical acclaim, Gerwig was notably snubbed a directing nomination at the 2018 Golden Globes, which resulted in an entirely male lineup. The correlation between that arguable injustice and Gerwig’s commitment to “Little Women,” a movie telling the story of female writers and artists trying to make it in male-dominated professional worlds, is an important connection.

Walking into the theater, I had really high expectations for another Gerwig-Ronan collaboration. Unfortunately, I ended up being let down. Where “Lady Bird” had been a visceral look at a young woman coming of age and learning about balancing aspiration with familial responsibility, “Little Women” featured a protagonist who was just not quite there. Jo March in Alcott’s book is wild, fiery and has a temper — something that is addressed in the film adaptation but never actually shown to amount to much. Ronan plays a much-subdued Jo with certain professionality and, overall, Ronan’s Jo lacks the characteristic passion of the beloved main character. At one point in the film, Jo claims to have a temper that often flares up, but viewers are never made privy. However, one individual who did not disappoint throughout the film was Pugh. Pugh rose to stardom through her leading role in the 2019 work “Midsommar,” an unconventional horror film that became an absolute hit, due to Aster’s name recognition, the aesthetic brightness and the psychological themes in the movie. Like many others, I was intrigued by the hype and critical acclaim “Midsommar” had been garnering and decided to watch it and was impressed by Pugh’s perforamce. In “Little Women,” Pugh is capable of capturing both versions of Amy: the young, entitled girl sick of living in her sister’s shadow and the older, more somber woman who has committed herself to raising her family’s economic situation through marriage. She is relatable, shows consistent growth and delivers a performance that is at once heartbreaking and mesmerizing. 

At one critical moment in the film, Amy discusses her place in society as a woman with Laurie, a childhood friend of Jo’s played by fellow “Lady Bird” alum Timothée Chalamet, proclaiming, “I want to be great, or nothing.” Spoiler alert: When Amy, who is a more sympathetic character in the movie than in the book, gets her happy ending with Laurie, it made me ridiculously happy. After all the pressure both her family and society placed on her, it was only fair that Amy win the heart of her childhood crush — even if it did mean stepping on Jo’s toes. If there is one thing “Little Women” did, it confirmed 2019 as the year of Florence Pugh.

However, Pugh’s phenomenal performance also served to highlight a few of the problems with the film, exacerbating the lack of passion in Ronan’s Jo and — as much as I hate to admit it — some issues with Gerwig’s screenplay. While Amy’s redemption in the film was a welcomed change from the bratty character of Alcott’s book, the increased focus on her left Jo sharing the spotlight too much for a film that was supposed to be headed by her. 

Additionally, Meg and Beth faded to the background as the story became more about the two middle March sisters than about the entire family dynamic. Furthermore, the timeline of the piece was unclear at times, jumping back and forth years and months without much indication. The constant jumps prevented me from becoming fully invested in the blossoming relationship between Jo and Louis Garrel’s Friedrich Bhaer — a professor who disappears for two-thirds of the film, only to return at the end as Jo’s love interest. Compared to “Lady Bird,” “Little Women” feels a little rushed or even sloppy, due to the screenplay as well as the unclear cinematography.

Despite these few faults, “Little Women” is a very good movie overall. Despite being over a century old, the story feels like a relevant critique of patriarchy and the devaluation of art by society, seen particularly in Jo and Amy’s career struggles. It also serves to show wealth disparities and the classism that can further the oppression of women. 

But I just wanted more. I needed the main problem with “Little Women” fixed. It may have been an issue with the character balance. Or the problem could have been the missing fiery personality of the beloved protagonist. The writing and adaptation may also be at the heart of the matter. Ultimately, it was some mixture of all three. Either way, something was just missing from “Little Women.” It is definitely worth a first see, but not a second, and is worth an Oscar nod — but not a win.