This is my favorite film of 2019 and it opened on Christmas Day, the best gift at the movies I’ve received all year. I have been walking around with it in my head and heart ever since I saw it at a critics’ screening a few weeks ago: LITTLE WOMEN based on Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic novel, written and set in Concord, MA where I lived for awhile right next door to the Alcott house. Writer/director Greta Gerwig has assembled an inspired cast and released this material (the 5th American big screen incarnation) from its 19th century constraints, and I believe conveyed cinematically what Louisa May Alcott herself might have, had she not felt duty-bound to a demanding father and societal strictures, and embedded her real impulses in subtext. Greta excavates that deeper meaning,  unleashing a vibrant, thoroughly accessible, poignant ode to “little women” making their way in a daunting world, having to jump through hoops (!) to be seen and heard.

Gerwig has scrambled the plot, and though I wasn’t always sure where I was chronologically, I always knew where I was emotionally.  The story is told in flashback to highlight how these little women became their adult selves. The film is bookended by its chronicler Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) sitting in her publisher’s (Tracy Letts) office navigating the equation between the artistic and the monetary as a gifted woman of that era must. Jo’s book which mirrors Louisa’s, is based on her family, and tells the tale of the March sisters: oldest sister Meg (Emma Watson) whom Jo –next oldest and aspiring writer determined to make it on her own–urges to become an actress, but chooses love, marriage and children instead.  Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is the third oldest and a gentle, devout soul who dies too soon; Amy (Florence Pugh) is the self-centered, youngest sister and a spirited painter.

Laura Dern plays Marmee, mother of this lively brood who holds them all together with great empathy and a relaxed strength, while Meryl Streep plays wealthy, irritable old Aunt March who presumes to know more than everyone else about what’s best for them. Streep invests this grouchy old lady with a mordant perspective on what a woman of her time had to do to in order to survive. Her line readings erupt in sly humor and result in an hilariously crabby performance. Timothee Chalamet is Laurie the beautiful, rich young man next door, who ignites the March sisters’ curiosity, playfulness, and romantic interest. His scenes with his confidante Jo, for whom he also pines, are particularly exuberant; their climactic scene together on a wild hillside is a heartbreaker.

Every frame ripples with life. Gerwig keeps all in motion, the pacing scene to scene and the staging within each scene; Jo and Laurie dancing unfettered on the porch outside the candlelit confines of the “proper” society ball framed within– is unabashedly delightful. They speak to each other plainly from the get go, but these actors, having played for Gerwig before (LADY BIRD), seem to communicate with a kind of actor’s shorthand as if in a repertory ensemble. Their scenes together are invigorated by their palpably authentic camaraderie.

The film is also beautifully shot, inside and out, in all kinds of weather and light. The outing on the beach, Cranes’s Beach to be exact, is set on a stunning stretch of seacoast North of Cape Ann; the location channels the freedom and dreams of these characters. These scenes play like sumptuous paintings in motion; we watch the March sisters and company waft along on a sparkling clear day, saturated with the blue of the ocean and sky, their dresses unfurled by the wind, sailing free like kites above the horizon but bound to one another and the earth below by their unbreakable affections. Later by candlelight the sisters will fight and scream and laugh at, and with, each other as their lives take the turns lives take, and they ride it out together. Their dialogue overlaps the way real sisters talk, with the easy intimacy and the careless wounds sisters sometimes inflict. It is a pleasure to be with these characters in the fullness of their lives orchestrated so vividly here.

I appreciated Gerwig’s freeing this material from some of the reservations that Alcott herself alluded to in writing a conventional story about  “Little Women.” “What would my own good father think of me if I set folks to doing the things I have a longing to see my people do?”  Remember, Alcott grew up a talented writer in a time that suppressed brilliant women, valued “propriety,” and was raised in a household dominated by the views of her radical thinker, educator,  transcendentalist and reformer father who impoverished the family after squandering their wealth.  Louisa certainly embodied his rebellious spirit — but within limits. If she didn’t marry, Alcott also had to make a living. So she wrote and published a book, but look more closely at the text for clues to the compromises she made, captured in the last scene of the film where Alcott and Jo merge.

It’s no secret Alcott yielded to her publisher’s demands that these characters give in to convention. Jo marries; Alcott did not. But let’s also remember, as literary scholar Judith Fetterley perceptively notes, that the wildly inventive heroine/writer Jo triumphs, while the humble, conventional Beth is not long for this world. I believe Gerwig too is reading accurately between the lines when she lets these characters be who Alcott really wants them to be, to breathe a more modern, unencumbered air,  lets them loose in scenes of rambunctious play-acting and clowning around. Though the most daring thing might have been to let Jo remain unmarried, Gerwig creates a more satisfying future than the one Alcott designed for her. In the novel, Alcott marries Jo off to older, staid German Professor Bhaer; but in the film, Professor Bhaer is not just Jo’s older intellectual companion, he is her vibrant physical equal partner in the person of hunky French leading man Louis Garrel.
Gerwig lets Jo have it all — a successful career, love, and a real marriage. I welcome the new window Gerwig, herself a woman steering a course through a male-dominated industry, has provided to view afresh the sea change Alcott and her “Little Women” were navigating, sisters who are part of that momentum on which we are still moving, and with whom we link hands as we write the next chapter.
Happy New Year!