Greta Gerwig's "Little Women" is the latest mounting of Louisa May Alcott's revered novel (published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869), and it pulses with fresh energy and the excitement of a top-tier cast. Gerwig, nominated for Oscars as both writer and director for her breakthrough movie, the incomparable "Lady Bird" (2017), here settles fully into her status as an exceptional American filmmaker.
Alcott's story has rousingly addressed generations of girls and women, but it's not just a chick flick, especially in this iteration. Its animating theme is freedom — the natural right, not always honored in this irritating world, to pursue what may seem the unlikeliest of dreams in defiance of convention and societal condescension.
The movie's grandest dreamer is Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), who is determined to become a writer, a goal we see her working toward in New York as the movie opens. Before long, we realize that Gerwig has boldly separated the novel's timeline into two periods, set seven years apart, so we're also frequently observing Jo in her younger days at the March family home in Concord, Massachusetts (where Alcott was largely raised), in a house that's a monument to cozy 19th-century clutter. (The picture is beautifully made, with carefully detailed production design by Coen brothers associate Jess Gonchor; gorgeous cinematography, conjuring a long-ago New England of stately clapboard houses and long snow-blanketed fields, by Yorick Le Saux; and richly draped and textured costumes by Jacqueline Durran.)
Jo's sisters represent differing avenues of female aspiration. The eldest, Meg (Emma Watson), is a beauty who's tired of having no money and wants to marry. Jo's younger sibling, Beth (Eliza Scanlen, of "Sharp Objects") is musically inclined but sickly. And the baby of the family, the pugnacious Amy (Florence Pugh), is set on becoming a world-class painter. ("I want to be great or nothing," she announces.) Doing her best to encourage the girls is their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), who's struggling to raise them in the absence of their father (Bob Odenkirk), currently away serving as a pastor with Union forces in the Civil War.
All of the girls are intrigued, to one extent or another, by Theodore "Laurie" Laurence (Timothee Chalamet), an attractively tousled rich boy who lives nearby in a mansion owned by his kindly grandfather (Chris Cooper). Laurie is drawn to Jo, but her dreams are too big to include him. Also circling the action is a wealthy relative, Aunt March (Meryl Streep), who's planning to take Amy along on a grand tour of Europe to broaden her cultural horizon, and an impoverished immigrant — a German academic named Friedrich (French film star Louis Garrel) — whose relationship with Jo gets off to an awkward start after she gives him some of her stories to read. "I don't like them," he tells her. "I think they are not good." (Ronan, once again peerless here, displays only the subtlest flicker of hurt before striking back with, "You'll always be a critic and never an author.")
Alcott's story is deceptively simple, and its dialogue still resonates today. Jo is generally irked by women's constricted situation in the society of her time, and she marvels at her hardworking mother's equable demeanor. "You're never angry," she observes. "I'm angry nearly every day of my life," Marmee quietly replies.
Jo doesn't think she will ever marry ("I love my liberty"), and she's usually adamant about it. "I'm sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for," she tells Marmee, as a wave of feeling suddenly rises. "But I'm so lonely."
And when Meg expresses her romantic plans with a young local man, Jo tells her, in one of Alcott's most glorious lines, "You will be bored with him in two years — and we will be interesting forever."