Grade: B-/C+
Rated PG
Drama

As I watched Little Women, Greta Gerwig’s Best Picture-nominated adaptation of the beloved 1868 Louisa May Alcott novel, I was struck by a great irony.

To appreciate this 2019 film—to even understand what’s going on—you really need to have read the book recently. Rather than tell the story chronologically with fully fleshed-out scenes from the book, Gerwig chops up Alcott’s narrative and tells the story out-of-sequence, bouncing back and forth in time using segments not long enough for the confused to get their bearings. The director seems more interested in scenic juxtapositions than she is telling a story she assumes everyone knows by heart—as evidenced by a scene in which young Amy’s talk with her rich aunt (Meryl Streep) immediately segues to a different location and time with an older Amy talking once again with her aunt. Numerous such examples occur throughout the film, and it’s clever. I get that. But I needed to keep asking my wife, who practically has the book memorized, who some of the characters were or what was going on.

That’s where the great irony comes in. While you had to have recently read the novel to be able to fully understand and appreciate this version, if you’re as big of a fan of Little Women as my wife is, you might find yourself annoyed that Gerwig took too many liberties with a book that was great enough not to need those extra bells and whistles.

A fragmented narration that jumps back and forth between the teenage and adult versions of the March sisters isn’t nearly as effective at conveying information as a traditional linear narrative. A non-sequential narration often puts the effect before the cause, and so viewers who don’t have the book memorized may not understand or fully appreciate what characters have been through, or what brought those characters to a certain point. As a result, you don’t feel the same emotional attachment to characters as you might have if had you been with them from the time they were pre-teens and teens through early adulthood, watching them navigate relationships with family; explore their interests in art, music, and writing; perform plays with neighbor “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Clalamet); and dabble in male-female courtships.

In addition, Gerwig felt the need to make the feminist themes of the book more pronounced (and obvious) by creating new scenes where the characters vocalize the disadvantages girls and women were at. My wife found such scenes totally unnecessary, and I, clueless about what was going on, found them overwrought. But we disagreed over the matter of casting. My wife keeps waiting for a film adaptation that gives her characters that resemble those Alcott described in the book. So far, it hasn’t happened. I’m fine with taking a few liberties in this area, even when it means changing a character like “Marmee” (Laura Dern), the girls’ mother, from a serious and soft-spoken woman to a vivacious 19th century version of a “cool mom” (“Oh, don’t mind the clutter—we don’t”).

Saoirse Ronan is a charismatic actress and does a good job of capturing the intensity of the hot-tempered Jo, whose ambition is to become a writer. But, of course, no one wanted to read a female writer back then, and so she had to publish under a different name. Emma Watson shines as sister Meg, who teaches young children and hopes to wed and have a family of her own. But Florence Pugh seems too shrill and abrasive as Amy, the younger sister who paints and aspires to go to Europe and marry a rich man. There’s a scene in which a pre-teen Amy is sitting in a classroom with younger children that seems instantly odd and makes you wonder why Gerwig didn’t use a child actress for early scenes as previous directors did. Oh, I know: because when you chop up a narrative you need familiar faces as reference points. Still, Amy’s tantrum-like responses seem head-shakingly comical because they come from an adult rather than a ‘tween.

However you feel about the narrative structure or change in characters, the Oscar-winning costume design by Jacqueline Durran and the cinematography by Yorick Le Saux are gorgeous. In fact, if you’ve seen the Alcott home (Orchard House) in Concord, Mass. situated right on the edge of a narrow road, you’ll feel a sense of history seeing it set in open spaces here, as it would have been in Alcott’s time.

We may have been disappointed, but 92 percent of the audience at Rotten Tomatoes liked this film, while 95 percent of Tomatometer critics pronounced it fresh. Though you might keep that in mind as you approach the film, what you think of the film is really going to depend on how well you know the plot of Little Women and how receptive you are to film adaptations that deviate sharply from the book. Either way, Gerwig’s adaptation is artistically interesting.

Entire family: Yes (though young ones will be bored and confused)
Run time: 135 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Sony Pictures
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG for thematic elements and brief smoking

Language: 0/10—Nothing here

Sex: 0/10—Again, nothing

Violence: 0/10—Nothing, unless you count a hand whacked at school

Adult situations: 2/20—A character is accused of being drunk; at a ball a drink is tossed

Takeaway: Our family is clearly in the minority here, and that makes this review one of those aberrations of film criticism—an honest outlier