Little Women (2019)

Dir. Greta Gerwig. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Timothee Chalamet

How many people do you think have said “No spoilers!” and “They’ve made this book into a movie seven times” in the same week?

I hesitate to say that “everyone knows” what will happen in Little Women, but like, if you’re going to see Little Women you know that Beth (Eliza Scanlen) dies and Jo (Ronan) doesn’t wind up with Laurie (Chalamet) and Amy (Pugh) torches Jo’s manuscript when they’re young, etc. The story is either comfortably near to your heart or threadbare from overuse. The pessimist looks at that scenario and says something like, “What if Jo and Laurie did get married in our version? #marchdowntheaisle” or, “To make a new Little Women we’re going to have to set it in the late ’60s and Jo needs to go to Woodstock with Meg.” The optimist says what Greta Gerwig appears to have said: “Everyone knows what will happen, which leaves us so much time to explore the characters in other ways.” Thus we have a Little Women which cuts to the marrow of what’s interesting about the story in the first place, a rivalry of two people who are, from an actuarial standpoint, matched evenly. Their hearts, however, are convinced that the other sister is the one with the upper hand. Most awfully, depending on when they have that thought, they’re both right.

Jo and Amy are sisters living, despite the circumstances of hardship and a father fighting in the Civil War, sort of a famously idyllic childhood. In Gerwig’s Little Women, that childhood is the source of the resentment in two passionate opposites, and for as much mutual affection as there is between Jo and Amy, what previous iterations of the story have seen as skirmishes now feel more like a campaign in which the two react to the feelings of inferiority they induce in one another. More time with Amy and less time with Jo opens up the playbook. As girls, Jo’s superior idealism, her ambitious imagination, and her can-do attitude are the winners. Amy, who harbors artistic dreams herself, never gains the plaudits that Jo’s plays and stories receive. (Where Jo’s work gets applause in crowded rooms, Amy’s drawings are done secretively, are used to get her out of debts to her classmates, and also earn her a caning from the humorless schoolmaster. In their own ways, both get the girls closer to Laurie. Jo’s mind is what captivates him, of course, but it’s Amy’s hilariously whining in the street post-punishment that brings her to Laurie’s attention.) Amy never makes a sacrifice as shocking as Jo does in selling her hair, and thus never gets the kind of admiring praise from Marmee (Laura Dern) or her sisters. Aunt March (Meryl Streep) seems more likely to bestow her moneyed attentions on Jo for a time. Jo’s age gets her into activities that Amy is too young to be admitted to, such as a dance or a night at the theater. Worst of all, Laurie’s interest lands on Jo and sticks there. Later in the movie we discover that Amy has always been in love with Laurie, and has despaired of marrying him; either she’ll never have him, or he’ll marry her because she’s the next-best thing to her sister, and what a tremendous lose-lose situation that is. When Laurie does propose, Amy rejects him, although after the scathings she’s given him during their shared time in Paris this last one is more sad than aggressive; this is the practical sister who knows the power of the monkey’s paw. It’s Beth’s death which ends up turning the tide in this movie for both sisters. Jo, faced for the first time with a tragedy that her generosity, fierceness, and ingenuity cannot hold back, decides not to put off what seems fitting. The problem is that Amy has always done a better job at knowing what’s proper, and gets to proper with Laurie before Jo gets to fitting with him.

After seeing the movie, Florence Pugh is the actor who really stands out here. No one with a voice that deep should be able to whine so effectively. In one scene after the schoolmaster canes her hand, she pops up outside Laurie’s window and starts squealing plaintively:

Amy: I’m Amy!

Laurie: Hello, Amy. I’m Laurie!

Amy: I know, you brought my sister home from the dance. I would never have sprained my ankle. I have lovely small feet. Best in the family. But I can never go home again.

That childishness cuts quickly to a very much recovered Amy making funny voices at the Lawrences; Pugh is as at home there, or wearing a top hat, as she is making those squishy noises in piercing decibels. She’s also entirely at home in the mode of the older Amy, a woman whose deep voice is steely in the defense of propriety and in the defense of a woman’s right to make good on her only serious economic choice. My marriage has to be a financial decision, she tells Laurie, because it is the only financial decision I’m going to be able to make for myself for the rest of my life. Jo’s brilliance dims a little bit in comparison with Amy’s perspicacity.

Pugh is so good that I’d started to wonder if Saoirse Ronan (whose performance in Brooklyn is one of my all-time favorites) was getting a little too much credit for the movie’s success. Then I listened to the monologue from the trailer again about women having minds and ambitions, which in our time sounds like it should end with “Hillary 2020” but which, of course, ends differently. Jo stares down her loneliness and wonders if she wasn’t too hasty in rejecting Laurie, and after that bit about ambition, she says in the most pitiful voice, “But—I’m so lonely.” The way her voice wavers on “lonely,” with all the gravity that the word has and all the depression that this extended lonesomeness builds, is simply the finest acting in the entire movie. There’s an unbearable purity in that one word, as so many of Jo’s outsize feelings are unbearably pure. But where so many of them have been exuberant or empathetic in the past, this is the first one that turns all of that purity on herself, and we can see her physically wilt underneath it. In that moment there is so much sympathy for Jo (just thinking about the way she says “lonely” makes my eyes burn), but there’s also a little wisp of sympathy for Amy, too. It could not have been easy for her to be found wanting under that white-hot gaze.

No easier than finding out from the guy you’d made up your mind to marry only to find out that your little sister, anyway. It was she who went to Europe with Aunt March after that place was originally promised to Jo, and it’s in Europe that Laurie, moping over Jo, rebounds with Amy. This is the first time I’ve seen Chalamet as anyone remotely likable, and he is so, so charming in the movie that you’re inclined to believe the Internet hype about him. The hair is hilariously windswept while he’s begging Jo to marry him, and he is one of those dancers who is more exuberant than good. (He also manages to dance with every March sister over the course of the movie, which puts him up on his grandfather; Chris Cooper gets rejected by Streep in a moment that is executed to perfection.) Hopefully this will be the movie which we remember for giving us a chance to see Chalamet’s great physical gifts as an actor. He is so thin in this movie, stick-thin in those tight pants, and accentuated with thin scarves that make him look like he’s come back to New England of the 1860s from Williamsburg in the 2010s. One of the great joys of the movie is watching him explode out from behind a pile of dresses, land heavily on the floor, and pop right back up again wearing a blouse in a room full of girls in men’s clothes. More than that, this is the right kind of charm that we can imagine Jo being a little bit immune to and Amy being transfixed by. Amy, so serious, so desperate for affirmation, must relish Laurie’s compelling gaze and his willingness to go full doofus; Jo, who carries a greater store of silliness with her wherever she is, does not realize that she might ever need a refill on it until her sister has already claimed that stock.

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