There is plenty of irony in Greta Gerwig's fine adaption of Little Women. Most of it comes from the fact that while marriage and career don't always make good bed pals, living your life on your own terms can be both energizing and a bit lonely.
The film is one that even this middle-aged male could enjoy for its elevating themes of empowerment and finding one's dreams. Some have called this version of the Louisa May Alcott novel a feminist tract and a sound refutation of the fact that - whether in Victorian-era America or today - it takes marrying well for a woman to be successful.
While we generally don't follow those same ideals equating finding the perfect mate to economic freedom, the fact remains that the economic divide in America has meant for some that two incomes are indeed necessities. But as Gerwig's film emphatically shows, getting by on your own merits, not to mention not being afraid to be bold, brazen or merely confident in your own abilities, can take you a long way.
Or, as someone says of the enterprising Jo March in the movie, "Jo's will shall be done."
Jo, played with ferocity by Saoirse Ronan, is the patron saint of independent womanhood. It is revelatory to see her briskly reject the suggestion of her publisher (a strong performance from Tracy Letts) that her stories of young women should end with them being married if they are to sell. Jo wants to be a writer on her own terms, even if that means having to endure some painful lessons from those who don't share her ambitions in Civil War-era society. She says early in the film that she "can't get over the disappointment of being a girl," consigned to finding the right husband and conferring her identity to that of marriage.
As she says of women in general, they are not paid to think.
Her sisters Amy (Florence Pugh) and Meg (Emma Watson) deal with the same joys and disappointments steering through a mans' mans world. Pugh, so good in the cult horror film Midsommar, is especially animated and a nice counterbalance to Jo. She is a talented artist who had not found an audience for her work, even when embarking with her aunt (Meryl Streep) to Paris for a summer. She turns instead to love as a balm, as long as she can continue to live on her own terms.
It is no wonder that Gerwig plays the clash between Jo and Amy to great effect during the movie. Jo has already rejected the love of the same man, their neighbor Laurie (Timothee Chalamet, doe-eyed and luminescent), whom Amy is eventually attracted. But as Amy defiantly tells Jo in an illuminating line, "just because my dreams are different from yours doesn't mean they're unimportant."
This is an important distinction to make in a movie that could have been more of a one-note cry for girls doing it for themselves. Amy's happiness is tied to love and art, while Jo is more willing to build a career independent of what others may think or want. Both can find their own happy endings.
Previous movie versions of Little Women have dealt more with the blight of poverty and the security of family as key themes, areas that Gerwig's movie does not avoid but keeps at a bit of a remove as she explores deeper societal expectations. That potentially makes this version more modern and, at the same time, more cutting-edge, unlike the nostalgic feel of the others, including the 1994 film with Wynona Ryder that doesn't have a clear-cut vision.
Striving can be difficult work for the woman of this story. The girls' mother, Marmee March (Laura Dern), must live without her husband, off fighting for the Union Army, and the family is on a bit of an economic cliff. This makes the necessity of Jo selling her short stories to magazines critical to helping the family eat. Early on, Jo is forced to write mercenary copy that sells -- vampire stories and other blood-lust novels -- under an assumed name. And, yes, her heroines must get married to their love interests.
Dern's character embarks on her own lonely quest to feed and shelter those in need, with the drive of Mother Teresa and the quiet desperation of someone who has lost something herself. She says at one point in the movie that she is angry, an emotion she keeps hidden under a placid exterior, but proud that she can help her war-torn neighbors. She is also a bit of a loner, doing work that keeps her from the family but is soul-nurturing.
Beth, the youngest daugther (Eliza Scanlen), is saddled with the burden of helping in that charitable quest. She is a musical prodigy at a young age, playing concert pieces on the neighbor's grand piano. But after contracting scarlet fever while delivering food to a poor nearby family, she knows she is doomed to die young.
Gerwig makes some points in the film about the fragility of art in a fraught world. Jo must fight through gender stereotypes to produce the work she wants to write and forego a traditional marriage. Beth's flame burns out far too young. Amy has to balance her art with the need for companionship. Even Meg, the weakest of the characters, enters into a marriage with a schoolteacher that leaves them without the material needs she desires. She is also an artist but has to give up that dream to help her economically strapped household.
The film moves back and forth in time, effectively showing how scenes later in the lives of the Marches are affected by what happened earlier. A shot of Ronan's character riding home in a carriage to help care for the ill Beth is followed by the family gleefully shouting and tripping over each other's dialogue to match their strong wills and the live-giving force that take from each other.
Dialogue is critical to the movie's success, modernizing it and giving it more dimension. Sharp writing emphasizes the character's desires, clashes with each other, stubbornness, laughter, comtemplativ moments nd contrasting natures There is an energy to the dialogue when the four March sisters are together.
That energy and illuminating power of Gerwig's story also shows in some of the dancing sequences, less discussed when critics talk about this film. A scene at a party attended by Ronan and Chalamet stands out, While others stiffly caterwaul and twirl, the two move to a balcony where they can dance freely over porch posts and chairs, throwing their legs in the air with abandonment before collapsing in a heap. The characters both are atypical of the rigidness of their time, anxious for freedom in movement and thought.
This is a movie that must be seen for its spellbinding power to enchant and force one to think about how to find happiness in a world not always partial to the same desires. It can be a difficult, lonely journey, but one that pays off for Jo at the end when she achieves what she set out to do, to write what she wants on her terms and without needing others to dictate her success.
May we all find the same fate.