Spoilers for Little Women below!
Much has been made recently about the demographic that the 2019 adaptation of Little Women is aimed at. When it comes down to it, for all the hubbub made on Twitter and entertainment news outlets, this movie’s demographic really should include anyone who has access to a movie theater. It’s that good.
With Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, and Florence Pugh, Little Women features three of the best working actors who have yet to cross the threshold of 25 years of age. They exude such youthful bliss when it is called for, all while also displaying much needed maturity when the time is right.
In the hands of anyone other than the masterful Greta Gerwig, this could have simply claimed the not-so-prestigious title of “Just Another Little Women Adaptation” (full disclosure: I didn’t know the story of the novel before seeing this movie; perhaps that’s part of why it grabbed me and made me love it). But unsurprisingly, Gerwig has crafted something elegant, smart, delightful, cutting, inspiring, euphoric, and tender.
Simply put, the message of this film is, “Go follow your heart.” Each of the four main sisters – Jo (Ronan), Amy (Pugh), Meg (Emma Watson), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) – has something very specific that they want in life. Jo wants to be a writer, Amy a painter, Meg an actress and then later, just a loving wife, and Beth a musician. The film doesn’t make a value judgement on any of these ambitions – it just frames them each in different lights.
For a while it seems that since this is a story that takes place in the mid-19th Century, women don’t have much agency in the paths of their lives. Amy frames it bluntly when she says to Laurie (Chalamet), “Well I’m not a poet. I’m just a woman.” But by the end, this idea is disproven, or else pushed back on. For throughout the movie, Jo’s seemingly personal creed is that she will never get married. She sees it as a very feminine thing to do, and she doesn’t want to fit into some predetermined societal role.
Jo is dead set against living her life a certain way just because that’s what she’s supposed to do. In an emotionally climactic scene, she says, “I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it.” And honestly, who hasn’t felt similarly to her? The feeling may not be about living as a woman, but it could be about anything. Everyone gets put into some sort of box by others and we can spend our lives trying to break out of them.
Ultimately, Jo is able to break out of her box. She finds success as a writer, and decides to marry. But, importantly, she doesn’t marry only because she is a woman – she marries because she feels fulfilled in life by doing so.
On the flipside, Meg is the first of her sisters to get married. She gives up her drive to become an actress when she discovers her love of raising a home and being around beautiful things. And that is okay! No one told her she had to give up her artistic passion – she chose the path she wanted to follow and stayed true to who she was. Similarly with Amy and Beth – in roundabout ways, they end up in the places where they want to be (in Amy’s case) and doing what they want to do (tragically, this is as far as Beth is able to take it).
As I mentioned earlier, the movie isn’t making any sort of value judgement on each sister’s specific passion. But what it does judge is the way they approach their passions. The four sisters are nearly always loving and encouraging each other. Apart from the rare instance where Amy takes out her vengeance on Jo, they always have a deep core of love for one another, and they recognize it as always being the most important thing. People follow different drives and follow different paths in life. The most important things to get these seeds to yield fruit are encouragement and camaraderie.
Yes, this is a movie all about females, but that doesn’t nearly mean that only females can take anything away from it. The loving tenderness between the four March sisters is what should be pursued in the everyday world. The Marches are best friends. They understand the value of encouraging one another, the value of building each other up, and pushing boundaries. And the boundaries are more than just gender-based. They are societal and artistic.
Greta Gerwig has done something special here. She’s pushing artistic boundaries herself. Through her use of time skipping, she is showing the ways life can change us, but also the ways it can bring us together. It can save people, both literally and figuratively. Art can keep hope alive. In an interview on The Big Picture podcast, Gerwig says, “You can save people. How do you save your sister? Write it down. Beth is gone, but she’s not gone.”
It took difficult circumstances, but Jo learned the value of following her heart and her passions. As did Meg, Amy, and Beth. They indirectly invite you into their home and into their family, as they did with others who needed help. This genuine, tender, and loving group of people is a delight to spend time with. And thanks to this piece of art, we always will be able to.