My first film of 2020–and of the new decade–is possibly already my favorite film of the year. Most importantly, it’s the first film of my 52 Films By Women Challenge (#52FilmsByWomen), which I explained in my previous post. Holy moly did I love Little Women (2019). What a stellar way to kick off all of these new milestones.
And I know, I know–this clearly isn’t animated, but we of course need to look at all of film when studying film and growing as storytellers. To limit oneself to just animated films is a mistake, and I was certainly guilty of that for a while in college until I started taking more film and animation courses.
Being familiar with the story, I thought I knew what I was getting into. And I suppose that’s where director Greta Gerwig truly outdid herself. Though apparently not enough for a Best Director nomination, bloody Oscars.
Here’s a trailer, as I won’t be doing a synopsis, but rather just some of my thoughts on the film:
Instead of a chronological story (like the book and subsequent adaptations), beginning with the March sisters as young girls and ending as adults, Gerwig opted to jump back and forth, inter-cutting their lives in fresh ways. Because of this, there were some fantastic match cuts and clever transitions throughout the film, as well as a lot of visual storytelling paralleling the character’s growth–how we change and mature regarding some things, but how other things stay exactly the same. This was especially fun to see in the actor’s performances as they shifted their candor, tone, mannerisms, posture, and more. This felt like it must have been one of the most fun films to act in, getting to inhabit a young girl’s imagination, and then having to carry that over into the older versions of said characters. When viewing the PDF of Gerwig’s screenplay, she writes the younger timeline in all red and the older, “present” in black, so it’s fun to scroll through and see those blocks.
Another clever way Gerwig helped distinguish the time skips was with the color palette. Childhood was warm, saturated. It was sunny days and green grass. The four sisters, who each clearly had a color “assigned” to their costuming throughout the film (and Marmee, the mother, whose wardrobe incorporated all four), was consistent, but the vibrancy also dulled with age.
The sequences that took place in adulthood were much more muted, and almost cold. That same contrast was present in the two main locations of the film–the March house, a warm, well-loved (read: worn down) cozy den vs the cold personality-less estate of Laurie’s grandfather.
This was also such a well-composed film, especially having to juggle such a big cast. I kept accidentally getting taken out of the film thinking about how nice a particular shot’s composition was, or how clever the framing was.
Amy, Meg, and Beth
The other three sisters were much better fleshed out in this adaptation, especially Amy. Because Amy starts out as the youngest, I’ve found she often gets permanently pigeonholed as a brat even in adulthood. Her immaturity is treated as a personality trait instead of a factor of her just…being a child. If I was 12 and the youngest of four sisters I’d be asserting myself and seeking attention just as much. This film gives her room to grow, and she does, allowing actor Florence Pugh to deliver the most devastating lines about the experience womanhood has been for much of history.
While Meg and Beth had smaller story arcs, I was still so pleased with their portrayals..their desires, vulnerabilities, and how those things play out for them. I felt that collectively the four sisters represented some very interesting facets of womanhood then and now, because, while it’s obviously a period film, films are always a reflection of when they were made.
I think as a response to the current timeline, Gerwig crafted an amazing ending for this film that reflects 2019 and the plight of women creators perfectly. It was simultaneously a critique and an olive branch to author Louise May Alcott, whose hand had been forced when she wrote the ending of the original novel(s). I think it was also a callout to filmmakers at large, who have long viewed “domestic” or “women’s” stories as lacking the prestige for awards or worthiness to be made/told. To me, it isn’t a coincidence that the one woman to have won best director at the Oscars did so with a war film starring almost all men (Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker). And that’s not to invalidate that film, or its importance. That’s a whole other post.
The ending of Little Women also takes us into a third timeline, giving us an even more adult Jo arguing with her publisher about the events that unfold in her book as they are happening to a younger (but still adult) Jo. It’s also a moment where she’s arguing for her rights as a creative. It’s also worth noting that the final triumph of this film isn’t marriage, but it’s her watching her first published book literally get created on the assembly line. It’s her running her school with the help of her family. It’s her inner and outer coming together, finally being able to live both. I think Alcott herself would appreciate it.
For me, a girl who was a proud ‘tomboy’ who grew up very disdainful of being a girl (boys always did have all the adventures), never really expecting to find love, and working to be a writer, I was always a Jo March. Always. But now I know I am also an Amy, a Beth, and a Meg. Even a Laurie. Because women (people, really) contain multitudes. And I cannot wait to destroy my blu-ray of this when I rewatch it over and over when I need a comforting and familiar story.
Also. The score is the best writing background music I’ve ever had.