Editor's note: This article is the third of seven film reviews that are The Daily staff's top picks from the 92nd Academy Awards nominees. The final results will be announced at the annual ceremony, streaming at 7 p.m. Feb. 9 on ABC Network.
“I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another 40 years to do so.”
Among the many poignant scenes in “Little Women” (2019), it may be this subtle conversation between Marmee March (Laura Dern) and her second-oldest daughter, Jo (Saoirse Ronan), that best captures the distinct mix of disillusionment and hope that is central to director Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel.
The film has been nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design and Best Original Music Score at the 92nd Academy Awards. Gerwig’s adaptation has also garnered nominations for Ronan and Florence Pugh in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories, respectively.
“Little Women” follows the four March sisters — Meg (Emma Watson), Jo, Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Pugh) — over a span of seven years during and after the Civil War, as they navigate the transition from their blissful childhood in Massachusetts to their diverging paths of adulthood.
Jo dreams of being a published writer and goes to New York to pursue those dreams, but she returns home when Beth falls ill. While there, Jo is forced to confront her loneliness, and she questions whether she was right to reject romance in favor of pursuing her creative goals. Meanwhile, Meg has gotten married in a seemingly perfect celebration of true love. But she spends her early adulthood coming to terms with the part of her that still yearns for more than domestic life.
Amy, who has spent much of her childhood either antagonizing Jo or swooning over the March family’s neighbor and friend Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence (Timothée Chalamet), has followed her artistic ambition to France to study painting. But with the guidance of her wealthy, single Aunt March (Meryl Streep), who tells Amy she’s the family’s “last hope” to marry rich and ensure their economic stability, she prepares to give up on her dream of becoming a famous painter.
In the roles of Jo and Amy, who often butt heads, Ronan and Pugh deliver particularly memorable performances. Their interactions create an honest, convincing portrayal of two sisters so similar to each other that they are the best of friends at certain times and the worst of rivals at others. Pugh also shines opposite Chalamet, first as a comically starry-eyed 12-year-old and then as a self-aware, perceptive young woman who, in one of the film’s best scenes, sets the record straight for Laurie on the harsh reality of what marriage means for women of her time.
Gerwig, arguably known best for directing “Lady Bird,” which also stars Ronan, tells the March sisters’ stories through a nonlinear narrative. This is a choice that may leave some viewers confused at the beginning of the movie — particularly those who are unfamiliar with Alcott’s novel, originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. But as the story unfolds onscreen, each flashback and subsequent return to the present timeline results in an increasingly visceral, moving portrayal of all the highs and lows of growing up.
With every flashback, the contrasting music, colors and tones artfully reflect the growing chasm between the sisters’ vibrant childhood years and their relatively muted current lives — they’ve discovered adulthood is not quite what they imagined or hoped it would be. They still have each other, though, and throughout their intertwining stories, their love for each other is the one thing they can always count on.
In the nearly 152 years since Alcott’s novel was published, “Little Women” has hit the big screen five times, with Gerwig’s version being the sixth film. But the passage of time and multiple movie and TV adaptations haven’t made the March sisters’ stories overdone or less relevant to contemporary audiences.
Whether it is the domestic life and romance Jo chooses to do without or the creative pursuit and recognition Amy and Meg leave behind, Gerwig’s depiction of the sacrifices they make as young women strikes a bittersweet chord. It’s been nearly 152 years, and too often girls still find themselves having to choose which parts of themselves they will lose — or are told they should lose — when they become women.
In growing up, loss — of our childhood innocence, our optimism and our ambition — is often not only a possibility but rather an expectation, and that loss may be well worth the grief and anger Marmee tells Jo about. Yet the genuine, heartfelt story told by Gerwig and the cast of “Little Women” shows how boundless love can help us persevere through such loss and societal limitations, while we hold on tight to the best of the memories we have made.
Like Jo in the film’s final scene, perhaps we can own our stories and take pride in them, even if they haven’t turned out the way we once imagined they would.
The Daily staff's full list of reviews from the 92nd Academy Awards nominations: