‘Little Women’ is a delightful, yet disappointing, holiday offering

Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen in Little Women (2019)

Little Women (2019)

Directed by Greta Gerwig

After seeing almost unprecedented critical success with 2017’s “Lady Bird” (a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes only happens so often), writer/director Greta Gerwig set off straight away to write the “Little Women” adaptation she had been putting off to finish her semi-autobiographical film. Despite no less than half a dozen prior adaptations, Gerwig felt her take on what she considered the seminal book of her childhood would be different…and necessary. Not having read the novel of seen any of the film versions, I can’t comment on whether Gerwig’s version is that much different, or if it’s any better. I can say, though, that it is no “Lady Bird.”

“Little Women” follows two timelines, set seven years apart, that tell the coming-of-age stories of the March sisters: Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen). Special attention is paid to the pressures they face to marry for money—despite each’s inborn independence—and Beth’s eventual serious illness, which they all face in different ways.

Eliza Scanlen in Little Women (2019)

Filmed entirely in the state of Massachusetts, where most of the story is set, “Little Women” managed to transport viewers to Reconstruction-era New England very convincingly. It’s an adorable film with idyllic landscapes and meticulously crafted production design. Gerwig asked cinematographer Yorick le Saux to use a different technique to film the flashback scenes, and it shows. As the girls become women, the camera increases its distance and takes a more serious, professional approach. “Little Women” would have a rightful claim at a few technical award nominations recognizing the careful attention paid to the craft of filmmaking.

Gerwig’s plan to spend almost as much time with the adult March sisters as we do with their teenage versions caused some issues, in my opinion. When casting the March sisters, Gerwig considered how each could play their characters at two different (very different, in terms of development) ages. This isn’t a problem for Saoirse Ronan (who showed us she could convincingly play a teenager in “Lady Bird”) or Emma Watson (who, as the oldest daughter, is never asked to play too young anyway). But I don’t agree with the decision to have Eliza Scanlen and Florence Pugh play characters closer to puberty than college. Eliza Scanlen isn’t quite as bad, I guess, because I’ve never seen her act before and have no reference point as to her true age. But asking Florence Pugh, the 20-year-old breakout star of “Midsommar,” to play a 12-year-old girl (even for just half the time) made the character of Amy hard to take seriously. It doesn’t help that Amy is arguably the least mature of the sisters anyway. Watching Pugh throw immature tantrums looked out of place for an Oscar contender, and more on-par with an “SNL” skit (where adults are frequently asked to play petulant teenagers). Pugh doesn’t look shy or childlike—she looks developmentally stunted, like a 13-year-old trapped in a 20-year-old’s body. It’s a minor quibble, maybe, but also quite distracting when the 13-year-old Amy is on-screen. I also regret the way Meryl Streep wasn’t utilized. As the sisters’ cold Aunt March, Streep never got a single meaty scene to show off her natural talents (though, of course, she’s marvelous in the scenes she does appear in). It was an intentional move to avoid giving Streep’s minor character a major scene-stealing moment, I guess, but I do wish we could have seen Streep get more than a few lines at a time. Same goes for Laura Dern, who played the sisters’ doting mother. She was characteristically good, but was never given her time to shine. I don’t agree with those calling for her to receive an Oscar nomination for this role, where there were so many others throughout the year who had better luck showing off their acting chops. Part of everyone’s fascination with Dern, I feel, is due to how much they love her character. Hard to argue with that. But an Oscar win for her and not for Laurie Metcalf, who gave one of the decade’s best performances in “Lady Bird”? I would be appalled. Rounding out the main cast is Timothée Chalamet, who plays both Jo and Amy’s love interest, Laurie.

Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” script includes some of the chaotic bundles of overlapping dialogue she had built her reputation on in movies like “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America”…it’s her bread and butter, but I personally preferred the more realistically paced “Lady Bird.” Her little women sometimes sound more like Gilmore girls…whiny and stressed (which stressed me out).

“Little Women” isn’t a bad movie, but it unfortunately reminded me of Gerwig’s earlier works. I hope, in the future, Gerwig will take the things that worked so well in “Lady Bird” (and not just Saoirse Ronan) and make another film that wiggles its way into the depths of my soul like that film did. “Little Women” isn’t that, as much as I wanted it to be. But it’s a fine Christmas movie for the family, and that will have to do for now.

7.5/10

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