Writer/director Gerwig opens her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's autobiographical novel with a quote from Alcott herself: "I've had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales." It reads as a semi-apology for the film to follow, as if Gerwig is telling her 2019 audience, "I realize we live in an angry, cynical time, and yet here I've gone and made a sweet, earnest, family-friendly film." Well, after all, Alcott published Little Women shortly after the Civil War; no matter the era, we could all do with a jolly tale.
Gerwig's most daring move in adapting the story for the big screen (yet again) is to take the two separate books that made up Alcott's Little Women and intercut between them, with a blue-tinted "present" (presumably 1868) flashing back to gold-tinted scenes from the preceding seven years. She's lucked out with a talented cast who have the ability to convince both as sprightly teenagers and as twentysomethings tempered by loss and regret.
Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet, veterans from Gerwig's directorial debut Lady Bird, reunite as aspiring writer Jo March and Theodore "Laurie" Laurence, the layabout boy next door. The other three sisters in the all-American March family are, like Ronan, played by non-American actresses: Emma Watson as Meg, Eliza Scanlen as Beth, and Florence Pugh, with the film's most memorable performance, as the moody Amy. While Mrs. March (Laura Dern, all sad eyes and patient smiles) holds down the fort, Father (a miscast Bob Odenkirk) ails far away, as the Civil War rages on even further south. Depicted as a fun-loving, endlessly chatty bunch, the March girls are much more interested in their adolescent pursuits than in grieving over the bloodshed a thousand miles away. But life throws its curve balls and, one by one, each sister matures in her own way.
Little Women is no genre-bender – Gerwig knows she's in Currier & Ives territory, and stages her film accordingly – but it is pleasant and poignant. Its main and perhaps only flaw is that it doesn't really sell the love triangle between Jo, Laurie, and Amy; despite its 135 minute run time, I think it could have spared another minute or so to show Laurie truly pining for Jo, and Amy for Laurie. It's such a major part of the story, yet Gerwig mostly relegates it to the back burner. It's likely that the relationship of the family to poor sickly Beth interested her more than the other subplots, as her flashback/flash-forward technique really works wonderfully here.
There has been some controversy over Gerwig not receiving a Best Director Oscar nomination for this film, with all five nominees, as usual, being men. (She did score the nod for Lady Bird.) Whether she deserved a nomination would be to argue which of the five actual nominees (Todd Phillips for Joker, Martin Scorsese for The Irishman, Bong Joon-ho for Parasite, Sam Mendes for 1917, and Quentin Tarantino for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) deserved it less. And that opens up an even bigger question of, "What does 'best directing' even mean?" At any rate, unless you agree that 90% of directing is casting, Gerwig's strengths here are clearly more in her screenplay than in her mise-en-scène. Although she does make this 150 year old, oft-filmed story feel alive, so she certainly deserves credit for that.