‘Little Women’ leaves little impact

Scott Powell

Greta Gerwig is talented. For proof of this, one need look no further than her 2017 coming-of-age tour de force “Lady Bird.” 

Seriously, it would probably be best not to look further than this, as the director’s latest offering, “Little Women,” hardly holds a candle — nay, it hardly holds so much as a week-old glow stick — to her previous work.

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This isn’t to say that the movie is bad. It’s delightful. It’s a fun, whimsical, sentimental reimagining of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel with a slightly feistier, more contemporary bite. The problem is that every single previous rendering of the story (whose screen adaptations number six in total) could be described the exact same way: nothing more than cozy, nostalgic, feel-good displays of the simple joys and frivolities of sisterhood.

But there’s much more to “Little Women,” that is, to Alcott’s original story, than frivolity. Although the antics of the March sisters seem light and frivolous to today’s audiences — much like other 19th century heroines such as those created by Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters — they were anything but that in their own time.

As with Gerwig’s characters in “Lady Bird,” what set these women apart was their realness and their authenticity. In a time where women were continuously relegated to mere plot devices that advanced the arcs of their more complicated, layered male counterparts, authors like Alcott made them into the fleshed out human beings they are.

Although the antics of the March sisters seem light and frivolous to today’s audiences — much like other 19th century heroines such as those created by Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters — they were anything but that in their own time.”

Thus, it would seem that Gerwig is the perfect choice to direct an adaptation of Alcott’s work since this is precisely what made her directorial debut so captivating despite the simplicity and clichéd nature of its central storyline: her commitment to see past this surface-level feistiness and defiance and create female characters who, simple as it may sound, actually seem human.

Her films aren’t just bones thrown to the self-congratulatory proponents of cinematic “girl power.” She lets her instincts, rather than her morals, guide her work — both as an actress and writer/director — which is the most reliable indicator of a true artist.

In “Little Women,” however, that commitment is gone. Gerwig seems uncertain as to how much she wants to adapt her own style to fit Alcott’s story and, contrarily, how much she wants to change Alcott’s story to make it resonate with modern audiences.

Thus, the film doesn’t keep a consistent tone throughout but instead constantly shifts between a traditional retelling of Alcott’s novel and something more modern, with a bit of a Gerwig edge.

For example, one scene depicts Jo, played by Saoirse Ronan, and her then-suitor Laurie, played by Timothée Chalamet, dancing at a Christmas party. Their style is very formal and fitting to the time period for most of their waltz, but suddenly, the pair breaks off into wild, ravenous convulsions that seem more fitting for a middle school dance party than a 19th century high society ball.

It’s a very Gerwig moment and one that fits well into the film despite not necessarily being period appropriate. However, this tone doesn’t persist throughout the movie. There’s not a consistent effort to translate the spirit, depth and complexity that the characters represented in their time to something that modern audiences can relate to.

The film doesn’t keep a consistent tone throughout but instead constantly shifts between a more traditional retelling of Alcott’s novel and something more modern, with a bit of a Gerwig edge.”

Although Gerwig is capable of imbuing this endlessly picked-over story with a new, contemporary life that captures the original spirit of the March sisters, and this unique artistic vision occasionally peeks through, the piece as a whole comes off as a surface-level recital of Alcott’s work rather than a spirited rejuvenation of it. 

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The characters don’t have the same kind of multi-dimensionality that Gerwig is so skilled at conveying. They are the same kind of externally defiant and internally shallow Hallmark-style female protagonists that are already prolific in our movies and whose lack of depth is compensated for by reminding the audience that they are “strong” and “independent” women who are capable of making their own way in the world.

These are just words: words that we’ve heard a million times before from a million different characters in a million different movies, but we still don’t attach much weight to them because there are so few female protagonists that actually embody these traits in their respective films.

This is largely because there are so few filmmakers in the male-dominated Hollywood industry who know how to effectively craft believable female characters. Gerwig is a director who knows how to do this and who has proven her talent, as well as the commercial and critical viability of films featuring these kinds of complex female protagonists.

However, this prowess for developing compelling leading ladies is not on display in “Little Women,” which, despite its potential, fails to rise above the hollow and formulaic brand of “girl power” cinema that Hollywood is already heavily saturated with.

Scotty Powell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @scottysseus