Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird was the coming-of-age story I never realized I needed. Saoirse Ronan’s portrayal of Lady Bird was the closest to seeing myself on screen that I’ve ever been. She was weird, but not in a “cute” way. She was ambitious, but not particularly gifted. She was loud and emotional, but not really sure what she wanted to say. She was real. Watching her relationship with her mother was like watching my own. When Ladybird asks her mom if she likes her, I started to cry. My mother used to tell me all the time, when I was that age, that she loved me but didn’t like me. Our relationship was contentious, as with many teenage girls and their mothers, and seeing theirs start to heal as Ladybird goes off to college was cathartic.
So my excitement at hearing that the director and star of Ladybird were teaming up again to bring to life one of my favorite stories – Little Women – was incredibly exciting! The casting was perfect – Laura Dern is an ideal choice for the sweet and giving Marmie, Emma Watson for the beautiful Meg, Meryl Streep for the grumpy Aunt March, Saoirse Ronan as the ambitious and clever Jo and probably the most perfectly cast ever … Timothee Chalamet as 19th century fuckboy, Laurie. I wasn’t sure about Florence Pugh as Amy, since I hadn’t seen her in anything before but she was immediately perfect. In fact, possibly too perfect? She was more Amy than Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis were combined in the 1994 film. That movie, starring Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Clare Danes and Susan Sarandon was a favorite of mine. I wore the tape out and cried every time poor, sweet Beth succumbed to Scarlett Fever.
But Pugh seemed to have charmed filmmaker Gerwig the same way Amy charmed her way through life. The story seemed so much more about Amy than I remember the novel being, and certainly more than in the 1994 version. It’s a bit ironic that the tagline for this movie, which I’ve always thought was about Jo, is “Own Your Story” since Saoirse Ronan doesn’t seem to own the story of this movie. It’s shared between the two sisters – and Chalamet – which isn’t wrong, but isn’t the way I was expecting the story go to. I’ve always identified so strongly with Jo, even when she’s screaming at Amy that she hates her and will never forgive her for burning her novel, that to see this movie tell so much of Amy’s story felt a bit insulting.
Not for comparison’s purposes, but I do hope most viewers of this Little Women are familiar with the 1994 movie or with the book. Gerwig chooses to tell the March sisters’ story bouncing back and forth through time. Rather than chronologically, she presents the moments of their lives to us thematically. I didn’t hate the approach, but since the roles were all played by the same actors throughout (no young and old Amy in this version) and the characters appear to age very little over the course of seven years, it was difficult to know when we were in a flashback and when we were in the current time for Jo as she sells her story to the publisher. There were also, inexplicably, two moments in the film where our characters on screen spoke directly to the camera and read a letter of correspondence. It was an interesting way to present those letters, but without more of that, those moments felt out of place.
In general, I enjoyed the movie – as did the rest of the audience around me, with one woman proclaiming she was coming back to see it again tomorrow! It’s a wonderful story, told with great actors and competent direction. However, I still prefer the 1994 version, and it’s simpler way of telling the story.