It is a truth universally acknowledged that women in the 19th century didn't have a plethora of options (nor did they in the 18th century, which is when another famous novel about sisters was written from which this review's opening lines are cribbed).
Louisa May Alcott's Little Women tells the story of four sisters: Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth March (Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen), growing up poor in New England during the Civil War. Despite having little, the sisters have spunk and dreams. Particularly Jo who, like Alcott, is the writer in the family. Little Women was a huge hit when it was published in 1868-69, and it has never been out of print since then. And yet, at the same time, it's a problematic text if you don't like stories about women getting married.
Director Greta Gerwig is not the first filmmaker to grapple with contemporary readers' dissatisfaction with the marriage plot of Little Women. But she is the first to navigate it in a satisfying way. While the film captures cinematically the domestic warmth of the story—the March home is cozy and the sisters bedecked in costumes for the plays they put on for one another and the frocks they wear to parties—it also breaks a domestic story wide open. Gerwig accomplishes this with a narrative slice-and-dice of the original story's timeline, and an imagined amplification of Jo's career as a writer.
Ronan acts winningly as Jo, a surrogate for Alcott, who hoped her heroine could end up a literary spinster. "I'm sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for," Jo says to her mother Marmee (Laura Dern). Alcott also was sick of it. She was involved in the women's suffrage movement, and the first women to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts. Little Women doesn't just pass the Bechdel test; it pays tribute to a woman writer who pushed at the constraints of her time.
+ Meryl Streep as mean Aunt March
– not enough Meryl Streep as mean Aunt March
Directed by Gerwig
With Ronan, Watson, Pugh, Scanlen, Dern and Streep
Regal Santa Fe, Violet Crown, PG, 135 minutes