And so we are deeply indebted, Ms. Gerwig. Eliza Scanlen’s shy earnestness (a la Greta Thunberg) produces an unexpected subplot with Christopher Cooper, and it’s a heart-warming “seeing” for which we’re all grateful.
But Ms. Gerwig, perhaps more mentionable are the landscapes you’ve created which we’ve always wanted for American period films. New England is “nice,” and you’ll be thanked for giving those saccharinely sweet Jane Austen movies a run for their money. (Not since Kevin Sullivan’s Canadian Anne of Green Gables have we had brood-y North American period countryside to look at.)
But even more vibrant? The ivory beachside light, bathing your seaside tableaux, full of white dresses and parasols – itself an impressionist painting, in the manner of Degas, Monet, or even our very own William Merritt Chase! Never before accomplished on screen! A marvel!
…A tableaux that’s nevertheless jarringly animatronic due to the fact that there are only a few scenes in which Saoirse Ronan is not jabbing or shoving Timothée Chalamet to the ground. To be sure, Saoirse’s physicality is what makes the movie positively American. We’ve always been England’s rowdy cousin, and Saoirse’s clobbering is remarkably precise, both in representing American folk cultural mileaus, and in representing tightly-knit all-female households.
I assure you that the fist-fighting scenes are remarkably accurate for such homes, despite the long-gowned costuming. That is to say, there were three sisters in my household, and clobber them I did. In fact, so much of the film sat like a remembered memory, of the bickering, the excited holidays, and pensive futures of four very different girls, the joys and the sorrows, and the simplicity of modest, long-dressed little women.
Anyone previously concerned by friends’ imperfect engagements will spit out their popcorn at Saoirse’s supportively serious begging on the morning of Meg’s wedding: “We can leave!” It is her earnest belief and misplaced support that we find so endearingly reckless: “You’ll be bored of him in two years. We’ll be interesting forever.”
By the way, enneagrams everywhere will be vying for Jo or Amy as their patron saint. I have my own estimations of who is which.
We do wonder at the crossroads of religion in the film, with the March family walking in the opposite direction of churchgoers on Christmas day, in order to go feed the poor, the Hummels. This artistic choice seems to suggest, “Why don’t we just ‘be the good we want to see in the world’… that is, be the bringers of good ourselves, rather than bother with stuffy old religion?” We wonder at this suggestion.
And if I may, is Marmee’s prayer at Amy’s bedside convincing? Previously, her quotation from Proverbs, “Do not let the sun go down upon your wrath” seemed pithy, or at least other than sacred. Unfortunately, Marmee’s wisdom doesn’t appear until late in the film (a bit of a disappointment), but the development of Jo’s character due to these late interactions with Marmee is an incredible leap forward from Armstrong’s 1994 movie, producing a dynamic character for Saoirse to play, requiring incredible control for both her and Laura Dern in the final, pregnant moments of the film.
We of the 1990s have had our share of headstrong female heroines, at least in the line of feature family films, being raised with dear old Anne of Green Gables, Christy Huddleston, and the much older Sound of Music’s Maria von Trapp. Jo March rounds out the quartet, yet Ms. Gerwig, your Jo is achingly vulnerable as a woman forced to make her way in a man’s world. She is the most stubborn of these four iconic heroines, and in your film she all but swears off marriage. (Do you know, I’ve heard whisperings of this on lips less like Jo, even among the very young.) Starved for intellectual pursuit (women have “minds” and “souls,” Jo says), she is aghast at the state of anti-intellectualism among women (and rightly so): “I’m so sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it.” Yet at the same time, she seems to imagine intellectual pursuits and a life of the mind as replacing marriage, for unlike the other heroines, she adds, “But I’m so lonely.”
Ah well. We have Louisa May Alcott to thank for finding a Professor Baer to prop her up.
But Ms. Gerwig, the last scene is anything but idyllic! We were writhing in physical pain, scouring the landscape for Baer in those final moments. (We should have known better. You wouldn’t have done that to us. We’re cynical millennials, yes, but there are limits.)
Ms. Gerwig, this is the 2019 Little Women that everyone needed. Thank you for the remembered memories, the explanations of why Jo and Laurie would have never worked out anyway, and for offering us two inestimable images we’ll take with us into 2020: bootstraps (for pulling us up by), and open hearts (with realistic visions) that are nevertheless able to be warmed.
(The above I quickly jotted upon my first viewing of the film, which I viewed after reading Karen Swallow Prior’s excellent review. The first paragraph, written in my half-serious facebook-post-review-style begged the rest to be written, and subsequently read aloud in dramatic, over-confident fashion.)
Wishing the happiest of New Years to you, my dear readers.
Love, Shasta’s Fog