Note: There are spoilers in this essay about Little Women (2019).
In Greta Gerwig’s sophomore feature Little Women (2019), four sisters forge their own way during the American Civil War in the hopes of reasserting their agency and womanhood in a perilous time. It is an overwhelmingly warm love letter to sisterhood and family, but also a joyous proclamation for girls everywhere who tightrope social expectations that seem woven in with being a girl. The film depicts a form of liberation in the independence of and the interdependence between sisters; a social contract fulfilled among the siblings. Though written almost 150 years ago , it defies what we expect of period pieces by engaging with the present day in its call for female empowerment and equal opportunity. Ambitious girls and art abound, Gerwig crafts a tale from her roots, plants her mature understanding of the text as seeds, and shows herself blossoming into a formidable visual storyteller.
It is difficult not to see this film in conversation with her stellar debut Lady Bird. With love and attention as two seemingly inseparable values, Lady Bird explores the life of Christine McPherson as she embarks on a journey to leave her forsaken home and the strain this puts on her relationship with her mother. While Lady Bird offers to us a young girl convinced that the meaning of life is to be found anywhere except home, Little Women sees our protagonist rediscovering herself by returning home. In both films, we see our protagonists struggle to break away from the shackles of financial struggles and transcend into self-fulfillment. What makes this accomplishment satisfying is in seeing how the characters reconcile the dual nature of their desire to belong but to express the authentic self in their own disapproving world.
Little Women reconfigures the well-known narrative by restructuring the timeline: as if examining the novel’s two parts side-by-side in an effort to mine meaning. Most of the girls’ adolescence takes place in their home in Massachusetts, distinctly glowing with a candlelit warmth throughout, as their youthful bubble begins to show signs of popping. The sisters are together in nearly everything: as they perform their chores, celebrate Christmases, and are prepared for the harder life ahead. In adulthood, the sisters are divided: Amy (Florence Pugh) is in miserable decadence in Paris, Meg (Emma Watson) lives in her own household with her husband, Jo (Saoirse Ronan) travels to New York to escape Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) and become a true writer, while Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is unable to leave home due to her illness. Though this editing decision does not always pay off, especially as it can confuse newcomers, it’s great to see Gerwig utilize and subvert narrative expectations, especially in how she sets up the romance between the March sisters and their other halves.
Apart from this, she utilizes overlapping dialogue, reminiscent of playwright Caryl Churchill’s work, to breathe life and contained chaos in her films, and allow each scene to pulsate and feel alive. Unlike previous period pieces that capitalize on showing off the luxury, Little Women does not feel weighed down thanks to the Jess Gonchor’s production design that provides a lived-in feeling in each space and Jacqueline Durran’s costume design which captures the freedom and spirit that is ever-present in youth, only to be restrained later on by Victorian rigidity and elegance in adulthood. Alexandre Desplat’s score narrates the inner life of these characters in all its earnestness and vibrancy, encapsulated early on in the film when Laurie and Jo first dance on the porch in their youth and discover they are of the same spiritual rhythm. Adulthood stands as a stark contrast with its colder and harsher bluish-gray tone thanks to the cinematography of Yorick Le Saux, as the sisters begin disappearing from Concord, taking away the figurative glow with them.
As these sisters leave their home, they become more aware of the economics of their existence as women. Marriage becomes less defined by the consummation of love between two individuals and more about the opportunities it provides. Each woman carries a different relationship with marriage: Jo rejects the notion, Meg desires to marry for love, Amy wishes to marry wealthy, and Beth is wholly unconcerned with it. In previous iterations and maybe in other (lesser) films, it would treat some of these decisions as shallow. However, in its defiant rejection of a hierarchy of lives, the film treats each character humanely and their goals as equally valid ways of participating in the world at large – allowing them to embark on their own Odyssey and come into their own on their own.
This process of growing up marks the rise of a choice between duty to the self or to the family. In their early years, the sisters’ duties were tied to their households and to each other. But as they mature, adherence to this duty comes at a cost to personal growth and we see each sister grapple with this uniquely. Meg and Beth’s adherence to subservience and dutifulness results in the former giving up ambitions of acting, and latter eventually contracting scarlet fever in her visits to her neighbor. Amy and Jo struggle against these norms that their sisters adhere to and find an escape in art. Though Amy is aware of what traps her, she eventually succumbs to this customary life as she is faced with the insurmountable bias against women (unless they are the Brontes). In Jo’s desire to write for money and refusal to create anything that her mother disapproves of, she stagnates. Only after she is criticized by Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) and reminded of how she used to write by a terminally-ill Beth does she regain the strength to return to the personal. Interestingly both characters who die represent fading ideologies within the film: Beth believes that the immediate family is all she needs, while Aunt March (Meryl Streep) drills into the girls that wealthy marriage is all a woman is fit for.
What astonishes me the most is the relationship between seemingly soulmates Jo and Laurie. Dubbed by Gerwig as ‘the fifth March sister’, Laurie throws away many notions of the masculine and the feminine early on in the film, and the attention he gives to what would otherwise be considered ‘womanly things’ is so unbelievably refreshing. As Jo and Laurie’s relationship deepens, they challenge and also find comfort in one another. The blip in their relationship later on is due to Laurie’s desire to leave their childhood pact behind for a new kind of relationship – one which Jo is unwilling to enter as she still clings on, desperately, to the remnants of her childhood. It is only after Beth’s death and Amy’s marriage that Jo awakened and forced to accept that their early years are past them, enabling her to forward into adulthood thanks to Aunt March’s money. As they leave this comfort zone to escape one another, it sets them on their paths towards true adulthood: Jo’s journey to New York and back is key to her development as a writer, while Laurie’s journey to Europe takes him to Amy.
In a final act of remembering, Jo uses her writing not as an economic tool but as an artistic one: to remake and revisit the world of her youth; in which her sister was alive and in which she is married. Punctuating the beginning and end of our heroine’s journey is her bargaining at the publishing house with Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts). In the opening scene of the play, Jo is reluctant to receive her feedback and sells herself short – both in her writing and in her compensation. But by the end, we see that she has transformed and gained the confidence not only to write her own stories, but bargain with them. In this understanding of the value of her work and the value of owning her work, she exerts her liberated self by selling her story and keeping her royalties as a financial proof of her legacy. In the ownership of her book, she has owned her own story as well. At the center of the film, Jo stands as a witness to the struggles and sacrifice. Though we begin with her silhouette as she hesitates to enter the publishing house, we end with her face illuminated, holding her art like a newborn baby, as we witness both her birth as an artist but also the birth of the tale we have just witnessed.
Read more from this author: Overdue: ‘The Boy Foretold by the Stars’ , Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019): Love, Art, and Continued Emancipation