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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Review: Little Women (no spoilers)

I love Greta Gerwig.

Not romantically. Not in any way outside of knowing her a little, having felt her energy for a few hours over a few years in my life, and also seeing her work.

You may think this gives her an unfair advantage over me as a film critic. And in a few ways, it does. I don’t want to write about the work she has done that I don’t like very much. I am very uncomfortable saying anything negative about the work of the man whose child she bore. It hasn’t stopped me from saying my piece when it is time to do so, but I am as conscious of hurting her feelings as I am that she would either not care at all or forgive me instantly.

I tell you this as a preface because the experience of sitting in the theater, watching Little Women, which also stars someone else I love the way I love Greta, because what I felt for most of the two-hour-and-twenty-minute running time was Greta’s energy. I saw the movie. I admired words and images and performances. But what I felt, overwhelmingly, from stem to stern, was Greta’s love for these women, those little, those older, and those who grow from one to the other. I felt her love for the men, too, who all got to be more than the stereotypes you would expect from the shorter performances and of course, the appreciation of the mushy, angular, sloppy, beautiful charms of Timothée Chalamet (an actor’s name I beg will be shortened to Tim—without an accent—someday).

Watching Gerwig’s camera watching these actors behave in their characters, with intimacy but without seeing effort so much of the time, is like watching family movies on video or Super 8. She reminds you of how children play together, how siblings share intimacies and rivalries, and how deep the love is.

And the adults around the “little women” show their feelings instead of saying them. They never slide into caricature. Streep has the most dangerous role, as a brutal realist (perhaps overly so) in a world that has no safe place for women yet. But with a lot of funny lines and eye-rolling, she never goes past the point where you know that she wants her girls to be safe and as happy as they can be, in her perspective. Chris Cooper seems a set-up for a tough codger, but bring enormous depth and pain and love to a small role. Tracy Letts gets maybe 4 minutes on camera, but still gets business that gets recalled later and ultimately, a lovely little arc.

Laura Dern gives another beautiful performance, though her grounded earth mom here feels so much more like her to me than her bitch-on-heels in Marriage Story for which she will likely be Oscar-nominated. But not easier. Between Marriage and Big Little Lies, I was happy to see the kind woman (another one), I’ve been lucky to spend a little time with. She radiates strength and kindness and wisdom. But in all that, she is given some moments of deep truthfulness as well.

Saoirse Ronan got screwed out of an Oscar last year for her truly stunning, career-topping role in Mary, Queen of Scots, which Focus just couldn’t commit to in a way that made even a nomination a legit possibility. It was a challenging structure for a movie and a bit odd in certain ways, but what a breathtaking performance of a woman who believed deeply and would not take anything less than that to which she was entitled. (Margot Robbie, who will likely be nominated for Bombshell, in supporting, was also stunning in a pretty small role.)

Saoirse’s Jo March doesn’t feel like as hard a carry for this remarkable and still young, actress. But as always, Ronan brings more nuance than you might expect in these roles. When they could easily go off the rails into the obvious, she grounds them in her own humanity. She carries the movie and does it without showing a bead of sweat. But don’t go in expecting a character you have seen from Ronan before. She is not a movie star that way, where you can expect a certain similarity in energy every time. She is strong here. And she often is. But her vulnerability comes out in new ways with every person she plays.

On a side note, it struck me somewhere in the middle of this film, in one of Greta’s pore-exposing close-ups of Saoirse, that she could end up being the first female Bond in ten to fifteen years. She needs the aging. Sorry about the wait. But it is easy to see how Saoirse could eventually bring the world-weariness and physicality and seductive skills to the Bond franchise.

Emily Watson seems to be the second little woman as Meg, but she unselfishly lets the second dominant character come slowly into focus through the film in the form of Florence Pugh, whose character, Amy, is not as clear about what she wants. Both just get better and better through the film. And Beth, played by Eliza Scanlen, has the least to do in the film, but still comes through as a fully formed character.

But the film felt so much about Greta Gerwig. Her first solo feature, Lady Bird, was  her personal story, set in the town where she grew up, shot simply and so effectively.

Little Women has the size that you would expect and desire in a period piece. Hardly epic, but nothing ever feels like a choice made for a lack of a viable alternative or idea. But in the midst of this more demanding canvas, Gerwig still delivers her heart on a cinematic platter. She is not, as the trailer suggests a little, doing the Sofia Coppola idea of taking the period out of the period. Greta never cheats or winks at the camera, though I have to say that I could easily see the film with modern music cues. This would displace Alexandre Desplat’s truly beautiful score, which would be a shame. But the thought did occur to me as I got in my car and heard some Bowie and Aretha and Tina.

I was happy to be in the room with this family. I was happy to be bathed in their familial intimacies. I felt my heart break with their heartbreaks. And I was happy to feel clear in what each of the people represented and not to feel like the characters or the director was shoving the subtext down my throat like they were fattening my liver for pâté.

I have read complaints that people got lost in the screenplay’s time shifting of the story. Wait ‘til they get a load of The Irishman!

But seriously folks, I didn’t find it confusing at all. The first couple leaps take a moment to settle in, but once you accept that this is how the story is being told, I didn’t find it confusing at all. It just requires you to think a little because it all fits together rather perfectly.

I have never connected to Little Women before. I didn’t dislike the Robin Swicord/Gillian Armstrong version of 25 years and that stunning cast ago (amazing how much young Bale resembles TC), but it felt much more of a traditional period movie. It still has a very loyal following. Maybe Geoffrey Simpson’s cinematography was just to beige for me.

Somehow, Greta Gerwig’s clean palette and clarity for each of the characters, even as they bounce about complicated story arcs and changes of perspective, felt like a refreshing cocktail of love and tears and not a delicious bloody Mary that is good in many ways, but gets too heavy to keep drinking after a while.

I felt this movie from beginning to end. And I can’t just blame that on my admiration of Greta or Saoirse or their real world humanity. Like a laugh, you can’t feel emotion that you don’t feel. You can lie. But if you feel it, you feel it. I felt it.

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One Response to “Review: Little Women (no spoilers)”

  1. YancySkancy says:

    Emma Watson, not Emily. 🙂

    I found Mary Queen of Scots so dreary and lethargic that I wasn’t too surprised that Ronan and Robbie didn’t make the Oscar cut, no matter how deserving. SOMEBODY had to be punished for making us sit through the thing.

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