Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ is Simply Brilliant

It was published back in 1868, but Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” remains one of the most timeless novels ever written. It has been made into a movie six times, been turned into several shows on television, was eventually adapted into a musical, and even an opera was created out of it. Taking this into account, it should be no surprise this particular piece of literature remains a popular one from one generation to the next.

Now we have the seventh adaptation of “Little Women,” and it comes to us courtesy of writer and director Greta Gerwig who is still riding high off of her success with “Lady Bird.” Is it better than Gilliam Armstrong’s 1994 cinematic adaptation which starred Winona Ruder? I don’t know, and at this point I don’t care because making such comparisons threatens to do a real disservice to both versions. All that matters is Gerwig has taken this classic novel and turned it into a motion picture which is uniquely her own. A story which has been read and told to others over the ages now feels fresh again, and it is one of the best films of 2019.

Alcott’s “Little Women” was originally published in two volumes, the first which dealt with March sisters’ (Jo, Mary, Beth and Amy) childhood in Massachusetts, and the second which followed them into their adult years. While previous versions have presenting the story in a linear fashion, Gerwig dares to tell the tale in a non-linear fashion as she has the present and past intertwining with one another. This has the result of giving the story and its characters more depth than was already there, and the emotions are more powerful as a result.

Now granted, this non-linear approach was a bit jarring for me because, at first, it was a little hard to figure out where things were taking place. But thanks to director of photography Yorick Le Saux who uses different strokes of light to differentiate the two parts, I did eventually gain a foothold on where things were going. The childhood sequences are painted in a beautiful set of hues which typically color our most nostalgic memories, and the adult scenes are illustrated with darker and more stark colors to remind us of how harsh the real world can be.

Looking back at Armstrong’s “Little Women,” it almost seemed fantastical in the way it portrayed the March family as if they had it made. Gerwig’s version reminds us of how they lived in poverty and were forced to fend for themselves while the patriarch (played by Bob Odenkirk) is away fighting as a soldier in the Civil War. But thanks to the wealthy Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), they have a friend who will help them during the toughest of times. Isn’t that great? You know, when the rich went out of their way to help out the poor?

“Little Women” features a bevy of fantastic performances from a gifted cast. Saoirse Ronan is ever so wonderful as Jo, the most free-spirited March sisters who is determined to become a writer and defy society’s expectations of her as a lady. Ronan inhabits this character in such a marvelous way to where her spirit proved to be infectious, and she makes you want to follow along with here from start to finish. She is so full of joy here, and you want to experience this joy with her.

Another key performance comes from Florence Pugh who plays the artistically inclined Amy March. Pugh already wowed us earlier this year in the deeply unnerving “Midsommar,” and here she gets to play this movie’s most complex character as Amy struggles to separate her expected duties as a woman from what her heart is telling her to do. Pugh does excellent work in portraying the conflict within Amy as her words express a surrender to what society expects of her even as her eyes show what her heart truly desires more than anything else.

It is also great to see Laura Dern here as the matriarch of the March family, Marmee. While she has done a lot of great work on television over the years, the recent movies Dern has appeared in like “Cold Pursuit” have made unforgivably poor use of her talent. Here, Gerwig gives her a platform to do some of her most memorable work on the silver screen in some time, and she makes the most of it. Dern even gives Marmee an extra layer of depth when she admits how her pleasant nature manages to hide how angry she is at the world around her.

The rest of the cast features actors you can never go wrong with. Meryl Streep is a joy as always, this time playing the far too high-minded Aunt March. Timothee Chalamet shows incredible range as he takes Theodore “Laurie” Laurence from a hopelessly naïve young man to a troubled soul whose broken heart can never be easily mended, and then he shows us the person who arrives on the other side of all that to tremendous effect. Emma Watson makes Margaret “May” March into a character who goes from having endless anxiety about her place in society to becoming a strong individual who comes to see what her heart desires most in life. And then there’s Tracy Letts who has appeared in what seems like every other movie this past year, and he plays Jo’s story editor Mr. Dashwood to great effect.

Gerwig’s “Little Women” is one of those films which had me completely absorbed and engrossed in its story and characters to where I never took my eyes off the screen. There is not a single false note to be found here as Gerwig shows off a sheer confidence as a director which makes clear how her previous successes behind the camera were no fluke. In taking one of the most classic novels ever written, one which has been adapted dozens upon dozens of times, she shows a mastery over the material to where it is impossible to think anyone else could have done as great a job as she has here.

Many will probably view “Little Women” as nothing more than a “chick flick,” but this rather shallow description does it no justice. Regardless of what your gender or sexual preference is, there is a lot of us in these unforgettable ladies. They yearn for better futures, get caught up in the innocence of their childhood to where they let their collective imaginations run wild, and they struggle with what a cruel world which expects only so much from them. Please do not try to convince me you cannot relate to these women go through because of who you think you are. Their struggles are not very different from our own, and this makes this particular adaptation so remarkable as we relate to them in inescapable ways. This is truly one of the best movies of 2019.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Midsommar’ is the WTF Movie of 2019

Midsommar movie poster

All the horror film fans I have met in the last few months have been saying the same thing: Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” is so fucked up, and they mean this as the highest compliment. Just the name of it is enough to make those who watched it open their eyes ever so wide sound like they are still gasping even months after sitting through it. It reminds me of when I saw Lars Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves” with my parents, and we are still trying to recover from that cinematic experience twenty years later.

Well, as I write this, I have still not seen “Hereditary,” but I have just seen Aster’s follow up, “Midsommar,” and it was his director’s cut which I got to view. Even before it ended, I found it to be the WTF movie of 2019, and I do not think there will be another released before the end of the year which will equal it in terms of sheer unease. Now I have to watch “Hereditary” as I now wonder which one will seem more messed up than the other. After hearing people attempt to describe “Hereditary” to me before losing their breath, I feel like I have perfect understanding of why they reacted the way they did.

The first fifteen minutes of “Midsommar” is a short film of sorts as we are introduced to graduate students Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor). They are romantically involved, but it does not take long at all to see the cracks in their relationship. Dani confesses to a friend how she is not sure Christian is opening up enough to her, and Christian’s friends keep convincing him to break up with her as he has wanted to for some time. However, when a terrible tragedy suddenly rocks Dani’s already fragile mental state which she treats with Ativan, Christian stays by her side out of a sense of obligation and to not leave out in a wilderness of pain and misery.

Cut to several months later, and Dani is still trying to recover. Christian, although begrudgingly so, invites her to come along with him and some fellow graduate students on a trip to Sweden. Their Swedish friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), has invited them to his ancestral commune, the Harga, in Hälsingland, where they can attend a midsummer celebration. The big selling point of this trip is that the specific iteration of this celebration only occurs every ninety years, so it is essentially the equivalent of Haley’s Comet; you miss it now, you may never get another chance.

Aster makes no secret of how “Midsommar” was inspired by, among other films, “The Wicker Man,” and this is even if you have heard of that cult classic but have not seen it. Our main characters are introduced into a place far removed from modern living if not completely removed from technology (someone is always looking for a WIFI signal). Everyone is dressed in the same white clothes, they live off the land and make their own food and crops, and everything seems so beautiful and serene. Of course, looks are always deceiving and, in this story’s case, they are infinitely deceiving.

“Midsommar” has been described as a folk horror film, and Aster himself has called it a “break up movie.” What I admired was how he takes his time with the story to where he does not rush anything at all, and this makes the experience of viewing it all the more enthralling. Even when this loving commune later proves to be a pagan cult which is not always kind to outsiders, you, like the main characters, are not quick to find an escape even if there is a working car nearby. If this were being released by a studio other than A24, I imagine the executives would be asking Aster, “Can you get them to the commune any faster? How about by page 3?

Has this kind of film been made before? Yes, many times, but even as I thought I knew what would happen next, Aster lovingly teases us with our knowledge of the genre to where my expectations were gleefully subverted. While he doesn’t do anything new, he does make this kind of motion picture uniquely his own to where my eyes were pinned to the screen from start to finish.

Aster plays us like a piano throughout as he gives us certain moments which appear to imply what will happen to at least one or more of these characters to where we can only imagine what fate they will bring upon themselves. For instance, the girls in the commune play a game called “skin the fool.” Need I say more?

In addition, Aster has the good fortune of working with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and composer Bobby Krlic, both of whom help make his vision all the more beautiful and deeply haunting. Pogorzelski makes everything here seem so inviting, and this is even after some commune members celebrate the end of life in a most painful way which, if it does not kill them, will involve some Gaspar Noe smashing of the “Irreversible” kind. As for Krlic, he creates a deeply atmosphere music score which sucks us right into the beauty and horror of all we witness. Even if we want to tear ourselves away, there is something which keeps us tightly locked in.

I am not really familiar with Florence Pugh’s work, but she does what many English actors have done before and will do again in the future, play an American character with an American accent. But more importantly, she captures Dani’s fragile mental state perfectly to where all the panic attacks we see her experiencing feel frightening in their authenticity. Trust me, anyone who has experienced any kind of panic attack will tell you this is the real deal, and Pugh inhabits this character fully and fearlessly.

A good deal of credit also goes to Jack Reynor as he boldly makes Christian into one of the most thoughtless boyfriends ever in cinematic history. Upon witnessing a ritual suicide, Christian first reacts in horror, then he decides he wants to do his graduate thesis on the commune despite one of his fellow classmates already planning to do so. Reynor also allows himself to be completely nude during and after one of the most deranged sex scenes ever filmed (trust me, you have to see it to believe it), and he did this after watching films like Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left” in which the female characters were made to disrobe, run around nude and be humiliated. The way Reynor saw it, the time had long since come where a male character suffered similar indignations. Well done Mr. Reynor, well done!

“Midsommar” is not your typical horror film in which you jump out of your seat every five minutes. Aster is instead more interested in getting under your skin, and just when you think he cannot get any deeper under it, he does. There was a lot of laughter at the screening I went to, but this should be expected. In reacting to what is shown onscreen, you cannot help but laugh as it is a good way to deal with the more deranged moments this film has to offer. Furthermore, I think Aster wanted us to laugh because even he saw just how fucked up this screenplay could get even as he wrote it. I myself have come to love wonderfully unnerving films as they offer me I kind of release the average studio movie never does, and I am glad we have A24 around to release something like this which freely goes against what is considered mainstream entertainment.

I am now eager to see where Aster will go from here as “Midsommar” as the work of someone who has seen hundreds of horror movies and has since taken what he learned and created one which is all his own. And yes, I will take the time to watch “Hereditary” as well. In a time when Hollywood is still all too frightened by originality, I am eager to see more movies like this made. For crying out loud, it has a Cinemascore rating of a C+. What more evidence do you need to show this is a daring and unique motion picture experience?

I’m just glad one of the characters found their smile again before the screen went to black. Seeing that was a major relief.

* * * ½ out of * * * *