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The New ‘Little Women’ Is Not Your Average Feel-Good Movie

It’s natural to be resistant to films designed to lift our spirits. But Greta Gerwig’s adaptation is a smart, funny, warmhearted movie that left me dumbstruck

It’s hard to have much faith in the future. Look around, everything looks bleak. No wonder people turn to certain pop culture to give themselves a pick-me-up. Maybe they choose some chill TV or check out A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a feel-good drama that Deadline’s Pete Hammond calls “the movie we need right now.” I have an allergy to the idea that we “need” certain films as a balm for our daily depressions — who are you to presume what kind of film will lift my spirits? — but I can’t deny that I’ve got my own go-to movies that re-energize me when life just seems too difficult. I also recognize that they’re incredibly personal and won’t speak to everyone. But when I find a new one, I treasure it.

One of the easiest ways to peg me as a cisgender heterosexual white male is that I didn’t grow up with Little Women as part of my cultural upbringing. I never read Louisa May Alcott’s novel, and of the big-screen versions, the only one I’ve seen is the 1994 adaptation with Winona Ryder, which I remember enjoying but have retained very little memory of. Add to this the fact that I respected more than adored Lady Bird, the 2017 coming-of-age comedy-drama from writer-director Greta Gerwig, and you can understand why I didn’t go into her new Little Women necessarily expecting miracles. And yet, a little more than two hours later, I walked out of the theater dumbstruck, emotionally overwhelmed and so very happy. This may not be a movie you need right now, but apparently I did.

The problem with describing a movie as being feel-good is that it will very likely provoke a knee-jerk negative reaction in the person you’re talking to. You can see them quietly judging you. Lemme guess: Is it really sappy? Or incredibly manipulative? Get outta here with that sentimental crap. We’re almost predisposed to resist falling for something in the same way that our friends or loved ones do. The precise mosaic of sensations that move us is so particular — it’s like our emotional fingerprint, unique and inseparable from who we are — that we resent the suggestion that just any old tearjerker can knock us over. We’re not that easy to peg, right?

So, with those caveats acknowledged, let me admit that I’ve spent the last several weeks telling everyone how much I love this new Little Women in the hopes that they’ll love it, too. But what I love most of all is that, while it’s certainly quite moving — and it did make me feel good — it’s hardly a softheaded film. Telling the story of the four March sisters — led by aspiring writer Jo (Saoirse Ronan) — Gerwig’s adaptation is a sharp, insightful study of growing up and facing the weird, difficult choices that life throws at you. With the Civil War as its backdrop — their father is off at the front — the characters don’t necessarily go through searing dramatic struggles, but the ebb and flow of unrequited love and the challenges of family are never far from their door. Gerwig observes these sisters and their dilemmas with such offhand mastery that it feels like we’ve never before seen the minutiae of domesticity with this level of precision. I’m sure we have, of course, but that’s one of the tricks of great movies: They fool you into thinking they’re achieving feats that no one else has ever accomplished. 

In retrospect, Little Women is a perfect response to Lady Bird, Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated film that was also about growing up and the impossibility of family. There, the writer-director drew from her own childhood to tell the story of a willful rebel (Ronan again) trying to find herself. But where Lady Bird felt like a variation of a kind of film I’ve seen before — right down to Ronan’s slightly Gerwig-ish line-readings — Little Women takes a familiar genre and reshapes it. The literary period drama is perpetual Oscar-bait — handsomely mounted, drably tasteful — but rarely has the genre exhibited such electricity as Gerwig brings to it. And while Lady Bird sometimes succumbed to excessive quirkiness, Little Women is a near-perfect depiction of abiding love and affection between a group of women (and a few men) who are complicated, occasionally infuriating, but always deeply empathetic. Often, this sort of concentrated adorableness can set my teeth on edge. With Little Women, I was aglow. 

Gerwig restructures Alcott’s book, splitting the narrative into two time frames. In one, we see Jo pursuing her writing career, while Amy (Florence Pugh) travels Europe and Meg (Emma Watson) enjoys married life. (Their sister Beth, played by Eliza Scanlen, is ill, living at home.) This narrative thread chronicles the sisters in young adulthood, trying on the clothes of grownup life, while the other time frame is from seven years earlier, when the March girls were all residing under the same roof with their doting mother Marmee (Laura Dern). Little Women moves back and forth between the two threads, suggesting not just how past and present overlap but also how these women are always indelibly linked, even when they’re on different continents.

The plot couldn’t be called suspenseful, per se, but it understands what these women are up against. Sexism is everywhere — as the most obvious example, Jo isn’t taken seriously as an author — and Gerwig frames their world in such a way that the characters are almost constantly aware that they have fewer options because they’re the so-called fairer sex. Meg’s decision to marry — and, conversely, Amy’s decision to explore — are, in part, reactions to those limited options, with Jo being the boldest of the bunch, refusing to be pigeonholed as she fights to establish a writing career.

Any discussion of this new Little Women’s political subtext might make the film sound despairing — or, to use an odiously gendered adjective, strident — but that would overlook the massive amounts of joy that flow through the movie. Yes, the March girls are oppressed, but knowing that the game is rigged does nothing to diminish their spirit or dampen their drive to change their circumstance. It’s a film about recognizing society’s inherent inequities and carrying on despite them. After all, even at their darkest moments, the March girls have each other. In Little Women, the sisters will argue, letting grudges build up, but the movie’s enormous warmth leaves us confident that they’ll find their way back home.

Some films reside in their own little universe, populated by a bounty of layered characters who seem to emerge fully-formed, all living their lives as if they don’t know that a whole theater of moviegoers is watching them. Little Women deserves comparison to the work of Robert Altman and Mike Leigh, directors who encouraged a looseness in their ensembles that yielded more naturalistic performances. Those filmmakers’ movies felt unbridled and unassuming, as if they were unspooling effortlessly in front of us. Gerwig’s film does something similar: It’s imbued with the easygoing spontaneity of the everyday, but girded by a melancholy knowledge that the happiness that the March sisters experience won’t last. Heartbreak and loss await these characters. Little Women is so impossibly lovely, and yet these lives, like all of ours, will be swept away eventually. 

That dark inevitability can be hard to accept, but Gerwig’s film takes it in stride. Undaunted, the film encourages us to savor the time we have now. Amidst a troubling world, Little Women argues that there’s still some grace and beauty out there worth appreciating.

It’s hard to have much faith in the future. And a movie like Little Women may not restore your optimism. But it does the next best thing: Beyond its witty feminist bent and engaging performances, the film celebrates the things that make life worth living — the passionate romantic travails, the silly fights and the people that just get you. Yet it’s also attuned to the small moments that, as they were happening, maybe didn’t seem so important — those quiet interludes when we were at the table with our family members, just being together. Maybe those moments, too, are the things we’ll hold onto. Gerwig’s cozy film loves its characters but, in a strange way, it also loves us. You’re part of the March family, if you want to be, and all are welcome. There are a trillion things wrong with society, and 2020 might end up being even worse. But this movie is here for you.

Here are three other takeaways from Little Women

#1. Let us recall that short-lived ‘How I Met Your Dad’ show that Greta Gerwig almost did.

In the last few years, Gerwig has evolved beyond being an indie darling, starring in movies like Greenberg and Damsels in Distress, to focus more on writing and directing. She co-wrote Frances Ha, in which she also starred, and earned Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Lady Bird. It’s crazy to think that, if things had worked out differently, she might have been more focused on a CBS sitcom right now. Or am I the only person who remembers that she was once cast in How I Met Your Dad?

Flash back to February 2014: It’s announced that Gerwig, fresh of Frances Ha’s art-house success, will be the lead in a spinoff to the CBS hit How I Met Your Mother. The producers describe her character as “a female Peter Pan who has never grown up and has no idea of where she’s going in life.” The internet immediately rolls its eyes, which inspires several smart film critics to argue that, maybe, this won’t be so bad, especially since Gerwig will have a hand in writing the project. Still, it feels like a step down for Gerwig, who hadn’t had much luck the last time she tried to go mainstream. (Who has anything nice to say about the Arthur remake?) 

Well, it all ended up being a lot of Sturm und Drang for nothing. Just a few months later, CBS execs revealed that they were passing on making the series after watching the pilot, with anonymous reports suggesting that Gerwig was great on the show but that the episode as a whole didn’t work. Considering that a spinoff to one of the network’s biggest hits would seem like a no-brainer, How I Met Your Dad must have been really bad. So what happened?

According to Gerwig, a Las Vegas focus group hated her on the show:

“The audience, they’re given knobs,” she told Stephen Colbert in 2017. “They turn the knob to the right if they like it and to the left if they don’t. And, apparently, they turned the knob to the left every time I came on.”

Who knows if that’s merely a self-deprecating joke or the brutal truth, but on the whole, I think the world (and Gerwig) are better off without her spending time doing How I Met Your Dad. It’s possible if that show had existed, we wouldn’t have gotten Lady Bird and Little Women. This is one of those rare cases where we’re actually living in the better timeline.

#2. I learned what Louisa May Alcott’s dying words were and then went down a rabbit hole of famous people’s final utterances.

“Is it not meningitis?” These, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, were the last words spoken by the author of Little Women when she died in 1888 at the age of 55. It’s hard enough to imagine one’s own death — I freeze up even thinking about what might be the last thing I ever say. So, I decided to look at what other famous folks uttered before they expired. Here are a few choice examples:

  • “How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?” — P.T. Barnum
  • “I’m bored with it all.” — Winston Churchill
  • “Friends, applaud. The comedy is finished.” — Ludwig van Beethoven 

It’s important to consider the context, of course. Churchill said those words before slipping into a coma. (He may not have intended that to be his final utterance before shuffling off this mortal coil.) Then there’s Karl Marx, who reportedly told his housekeeper, “Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough,” after she insisted that he preserve his final words before dying. Still, ever since Citizen Kane built a film around the idea that a man’s dying word, “Rosebud,” could be a clue to his whole life, human beings have been inordinately fascinated with these final utterances.

But maybe we should give up that habit. Earlier this year in a piece at the Atlantic, linguist Michael Erard wrote about the study of last words. He spoke with Maureen Keeley, a communications-studies scholar, who told him that there’s rarely profundity at the moment of passing:

“At the end of life, Keeley says, the majority of interactions will be nonverbal as the body shuts down and the person lacks the physical strength, and often even the lung capacity, for long utterances. ‘People will whisper, and they’ll be brief, single words — that’s all they have energy for,’ Keeley said. Medications limit communication. So does dry mouth and lack of dentures. She also noted that family members often take advantage of a patient’s comatose state to speak their piece, when the dying person cannot interrupt or object.”

I hope I won’t have to worry about what to say for a good long time — either in terms of my own death or to those closest to me when they die. But one part of Erard’s article really haunted me: “From a doctor I heard that [dying] people often say, ‘Oh fuck, oh fuck.’” I don’t even want to imagine what would prompt such a response as I slip into the Great Beyond.

#3. Here’s the Timothée Chalamet movie you should see next.

Chalamet, internet boyfriend and occasional master of the bowl cut, has been on a hot streak of late thanks to his Oscar-nominated breakout role in Call Me by Your Name. He was also very good in Lady Bird, and he reunites with Gerwig for Little Women, playing Laurie, the handsome boy who enters Jo’s orbit, causing romantic complications. Chalamet is still very young — he turns 24 later this week — so it might seem odd to say that he has an “overlooked” movie on his résumé. But I’m such a big fan of his work in 2016’s Miss Stevens that I wanted to spend a few moments singing its praises.

Coming out a year before Call Me by Your Name, this indie drama stars Lily Rabe as Rachel Stevens, a well-meaning but unhappy high school English teacher who drives some of her prized students to a drama competition — including Billy (Chalamet), a brooding aspiring teen actor with some emotional issues. The more time they spend together, the closer of a bond they form. She feels drawn to him, but she also doesn’t want to cross any ethical lines. Billy has no such concerns: He’s in love with her.

Miss Stevens was directed by Julia Hart, who co-wrote the screenplay with her husband Jordan Horowitz. (He’s best known as the La La Land producer who revealed from the Oscar stage that Moonlight had actually won Best Picture.) The film is a smart, intimate look at some despondent people trying to get through life, and it signaled that Chalamet was one of those guys you had to keep an eye on. His Billy is such a live wire — tempestuous, magnetic, possibly self-destructive — that you’re never sure what he’s going to do. Chalamet was just a teenager when he filmed Miss Stevens, but he’s got the command of someone far more experienced. He’s been on a rocket ever since. Catch up with this film to see the first flush of his considerable talent.