The art we engage with critically shapes who we become as adults. It molds how we view and engage with the world. It shapes our perspective, often subconsciously guiding us through the choices we make. For this review, it was the plays of William Shakespeare, the poetry of E. E. Cummings, and the adventures of Nintendo video game character Mario. For actor/writer/director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), it was Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women, a tale of four sisters that explores their relationship as children and young adults. Weaving the two novels which make up the tale into a time-hopping adventure, Gerwig’s Little Women loses none of the emotionally impact while making the critically timeless tale into something that speaks to the modern era. Despite being largely shut out of the 2019 Awards season, Little Women is by far one of the best films of 2019, delighting old fans who see something new and making new fans out of the latest generation of audiences.
Set during and after the Civil War, Little Women focuses on the four March sisters: Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen). As children, they grow up in Massachusetts under the supervision of their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), while their father is away fighting for the Union Army. As the story jumps between timelines, the audience discover just how unique each sister is, how they bend and fight against expectations of the era, and how deeply connected they are. A strong connection often leads to equally strong rivalries as the girls lean on and bump up against each other in their pursuit to follow their dreams. However, in an era where a women is only as valuable as what she can offer, dreams aren’t enough, but a strong familial foundation just may be.
If you’d like to go into the experience of Little Women with the least amount of spoilers but would like to know about the film, check out the spoiler-free Little Women theatrical review.
By the end of 2019, Little Women sat comfortably at the #21 spot out of 64 films. As someone who never read the book (bad former Lit Major) or saw the popular 1994 release (bad cinephile), coming to Gerwig’s adaptation mostly blind proved to be a blessing. It meant that there was little baggage to move around in order to get invested in the film, though it did require more effort to understand who was whom and in what relation. Gerwig, though, masterfully sets up the story so that even novices, such as this reviewer, can easily jump into Little Women. Part of this is due to a meta-approach of the storytelling, as the film opens with Jo meeting with a publisher, played by Tracey Letts (Ford v Ferrari), and ends in much the same way. This indicates to the audience that the film we’re watching uses Jo as the gateway to the rest of the family, even if she is not the center. Ordinarily meta references would deter or detract from the experience if audiences are in the dark, but Gerwig’s adaptation is the furthest from that. In this instance, the meta application is the presentation of Jo and the publisher as an in-film reference to the same discussions Alcott faced with her own novel. As explained by Gerwig herself in one of the many featurettes, women in the era of the story typically found their worth in one of two ways: marriage or death. By presenting this within the movie as something which Alcott-as-Jo faces, it enables Gerwig to comment on the era, while also offering an ending that honors both the spirit of the novel and the author. Another thing Gerwig does brilliantly is trust in her audience. Whether they are longtime fans like she or newbies like me, she trusts the audience to understand the genealogy of the Marchs without spending a great deal of time making concrete declarations. In this way, Gerwig makes Little Women feel like a living breathing event, even as it jumps backward and forward in time. A tiny detail, but one worth exalting again, is how Gerwig uses colors (warmer tones for the past, colder for the present) to indicate time. Upon the theatrical release, I remember hearing complaints of a difficulty understanding when it was what period, but it’s likely because they didn’t know the shift in color grading. Once you see it, however, it cannot be missed.
With around 40-minutes of bonus features, the home release gives fans of the film plenty to dig into to help supplement the cinematic experience. Surprisingly, each one carries the same kinetic, joyous energy that encapsulates the majority of Little Women itself. Composer Alexandre Desplat’s (The King’s Speech) music underscores the tidbits shared by cast, crew, and other behind the scenes figures as images from the film go whizzing by. There’s a strange liveliness that permeates the bulk of the featurettes, unlike anything in most behind the scenes experiences. It’s not just interviews with people as intercut with footage, though. It is that there’s something different about it that makes each bit feel like they are talking to you, in the audience, personally, as a welcomed member of the production. If you’re interested in the technical side of the production, begin with the “Hair & Make-Up Test Sequence,” a wordless sequence showing a variety of test footage of the cast solo or interacting in pairs. This featurette offers a look at the intrigue styling of the film. For something with a bit more explanation, move to either “Greta Gerwig: Women Making Art” or “Little Women Behind the Scenes,” both of which dig into the details of pre-production, Gerwig’s approach to the story, and get a sense of the set. Adding some nice context to the film is the featurette “Making a Modern Classic” as it enables members of the production crew to discuss their contributions. Part of what makes Gerwig’s Little Women so excellent is how natural it feels, as though replicated from real life: from the way the characters comport themselves, the way they dress, to the design of their home – all of this is discussed in “Making a Modern Classic.” If you’re coming to the featurettes having seen the film, then your first stop is going to be one of these last two: “A New Generation of Little Women” which explores the making of the production along with its themes or “Orchard House, Home of Louisa May Alcott” which shows off Alcott’s home. The former is a delightful in-depth look at the characters, themes, and style of the film, whereas the latter is a straightforward exploration of Alcott herself. If you ever wondered about Alcott as a person, not just an author, “Orchard House” is where you want to go.
The one downside to this home release is that there is frequent overlap between each of the featurettes. It makes sense that aspects like behind the scenes footage or explanations from principle members may repeat, but when it happens across multiple featurettes, a question forms as to whether they were cut independently of each other. There’s still plenty to learn and plenty to engage with, so it’s not as if the featurettes are a total copy/paste, it’s just that there are enough repeated details to take notice.
All that said, Little Women remains a strong piece of cinematic entertainment, one which was shamefully underappreciated during the 2019 Awards season. The cast itself is top notch with performances highlighting why they are all as revered as they are. I’d even argue that Laura Dern’s performance here strongly outperforms her award-winning performance in Marriage Story and that Gerwig balances the modernist ideas with the timeless story in her adapted screenplay more evocatively than Jojo Rabbit. This is a near-perfect film which recreates not just the literal words, but the spirit with which those words are infused. Thankfully, with Little Women available on home video, it can now be passed down for future generations to entertain and inspire.
Little Women Special Features
- A New Generation of Little Women: The superb cast recreated the beloved world of the March family with realism, humor and vulnerability.
- Making a Modern Classic: The film combines its modern elements—kinetic camerawork and overlapping dialogue—with the historically authentic bespoke costumes, sets and locations.
- Greta Gerwig: Women Making Art: Go behind the camera with Writer/Director Greta Gerwig, discover her process and how she applied her own style to the story.
- Hair & Make-Up Test Sequence: A lovely showcase featuring the outstanding costumes, hair and make-up crafted for the film.
- Little Women Behind the Scenes: Take a quick look behind the scenes on the set of Little Women.
- Orchard House, Home of Louisa May Alcott: Find out more about Louisa May Alcott and visit the real-life Orchard House in Concord, MA
Available on digital March 10th, 2020.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD April 7th, 2020.
For more information, head to the official Little Women website.