In retrospect, it would've made more sense for this to be a challenge between Lady Bird and Booksmart (a Beanie Feldstein double feature, hell yeah!). But I've seen Lady Bird at least 4 times and I HADN'T EVEN SEEN THE NEW LITTLE WOMEN yet, so it had to be this way.
That being said, prepare to be shook...
Little Women (2019)
Directed by: Greta Gerwig
Written by: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet
IMDB Synopsis: Jo March reflects back and forth on her life, telling the beloved story of the March sisters - four young women, each determined to live life on her own terms.
"I've never had a plan. I've always done things from instinct."
Before I can talk about Gerwig's Little Women, it is paramount that I adequately express how critically fundamental this story was to my upbringing: I am the youngest of three daughters. I grew up obsessively watching The Original (I know there are a dozen versions, but this is how I will refer to the 1994 one starring Winona Ryder). Jo March invented the iconic "Tomboy Writer" that I spent the rest of my adolescence trying to emulate, and she was my goddamn hero. I cannot emphasize this enough. To be honest, I really put off watching this one because 1) I really like Gerwig, and 2) The Original holds such a dear and significant place in my heart that I was extremely reticent to believe any reiteration could possibly hold so much as a candle to it.
Please observe Exhibit A: Is that Baby Sarah playing Jo March in the high school play??? OH YOU KNOW IT IS.
So prepare the tar and feather, folks, because I'm sorry to say I was right. Gerwig's might've been better than my sophomore debut, but it did not succeed my expectations. NOW LET ME EXPLAIN: This was ALWAYS going to be a battle of Gerwig vs. The Original. So let's break it down as such.
What Worked For Me:
1) Emma Watson as Meg: I'll tell you what, I had to look up who even played Original Meg (it's Trini Alverado?) because except for the iconic hair-curl incident (SO glad they kept that) I don't remember her at all. Watson was, as always, fresh and bold and interesting. She was more than just the example of domesticity, she was a woman who consciously chose "love in a cottage," as Aunt March puts it, instead of the simpler (and safer) choice of marrying for money (and what a great foil this is for the other sisters).
I love that Gerwig chose to show us how this was not always easy for Meg - she still struggles with wanting more - but that those struggles come with a desire that is more pure and more complicated than just immature vanity. And despite how hard it is at times, she is still ultimately glad with her choice.
I was actually reminded of Julia Stiles in Mona Lisa Smile, when Julia Roberts confronts her that being barefoot and pregnant isn't the "feminist" choice: "Isn't that kind of the point of feminism, though? That the woman gets to choose what she wants? Because this is what I want."
2) Beth! God bless Baby Claire Danes, but Gerwig did succeed in actually giving Beth a personality (albeit a exhaustively precious one. Why is she playing with dolls when she's like 16??). She was more than a cardboard cutout, even if it was only in her significance to other characters. Hardly a Bechdel success, but then again I've never been the biggest Claire Danes fan (I know, I know, we can tar and feather me for that later. Sorry, but chin wobbling is not an emotion!) And after watching Eliza Scanlen in the Sharp Objects adaptation, I am excited to see where this little firey one goes.
3) Amy, Amy, Amy. This one is kind of a tie, because NO ONE can compete with Baby Kirsten Dunst setting fire to Jo's book. And I'm sorry, but WHERE was the clothespin on the nose, Greta?? Where was it??
That being said... I simply cannot get enough of Florence Pugh. I could watch her lick envelopes and be on the edge of my seat. She is unique and fascinating and I am obsessed with her round face and husky voice and regal composure and captivating, never-ending inner monologue. I actually didn't mind that Gerwig chose to make them all teenagers much closer in age in the "past" scenes - it certainly made the Amy/Laurie romance later on significantly less awkward, abrupt, and off-putting than the '94 version - but I wish Pugh (who was 23 during filming) had played her like more of a 15 year old instead of a 12 year old. For that reason, Baby Amy award goes to Kirsten, but Pugh blows Dunst out of the goddamn water with her take on Adult Amy. I enjoyed how Gerwig played Amy and Jo off each other - both constantly thinking the other has it better - and their competition was perfectly layered with the genuine affection and jealousy that real sisters share. And my god, Pugh earned that Oscar nom with every syllable of that two-sentence speech on marriage and economics.
4) Now a name that might not be as familiar to you but definitely should be... Jacqueline Durran. She was the Oscar-winning Costume Designer, and you might recognize her other work from such films as Atonement, Pride & Prejudice (2005), Anna Karenina, & Beauty and the Beast (to be clear, I don't think being nominated for or winning an Oscar is the end-all be-all pinnacle of success... but it's hardly the worst indication of exceptional talent either).
Period costumes can be tough. They are little works of art, and it takes a delicate nuance to make them feel realistic and lived-in; beautiful, but not distracting. These costumes were orchestrated to look like real outfits, and Durran succeeded in making the actors actually look comfortable in them. They didn't sit on their bodies like high-end couture or ill-fitting community theatre hoop skirts; they looked natural AND beautiful, which is one of MY FAVORITE COMBINATION OF THINGS. (Also of note: the delicate and fresh score by Alexandre Desplat).
5) Finally, the aesthetics in general were gorgeous. From the costumes to the music to the cinematography (Yorick Le Saux), this film was undeniably beautiful. Along that note, the way in which Gerwig and Le Saux worked together to capture the sheer frenzy that exists in a house full of girls was so spot on. The constant chatter, the whirl of clothes and costumes, the bickering, the wrestling, the giggling, the warmth; it was familiar and beautiful and straight up Gilmorian in the best way possible.
"I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man's soul put by some freak of nature into a woman's body... Because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.”
"It's really hard to get stories made that are about women. Not just women being obsessed with men, or supporting men. And it's really hard to get men to be a part of films that are about women in a leading role. I'm really interested in how we can adjust that."
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"The star ratings are relative, not absolute. If a director is clearly trying to make a particular kind of movie, and his [OR HER!] audiences are looking for a particular kind of movie, part of my job is judging how close he came to achieving his purpose."