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Little Women

Directed by: Greta Gerwig

Little Women had perhaps the most controversy surrounding it of this year’s nominees because of the Academy’s failure to nominate its director, Greta Gerwig, for the award given to the best director of the year. No women were nominated, and with the Weinstein trial back in the headlines and #MeToo discussions seemingly everywhere, the question was bound to come up. To answer it, I think one needs to say two things: 1) the problem is not the dearth of nominations for women, but the dearth of female directors in general. That situation is changing, but it will be a long time before there are enough female directors out there making enough pictures of quality for there to be female directors nominated every year. 2) The question needs to be asked: Who would you take off the list in order to put Gerwig on? Scorsese (The Irishman), Mendes (1917), and Tarantino (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood) have long been recognized as three of the best directors ever in Hollywood and the other two, Todd Phillips (Joker), and Bong Joon Ho (Parasite, and the eventual winner of the Best Director Oscar), directed films of such creative power that no one is doubting their nominations, either. Gerwig, good as she is, has only directed two films, and Little Women, though a very good effort, was not her best.

Ultimately, the question of recognition should not obscure the question of achievement, and most feel that Gerwig has pulled off a very difficult feat: retaining viewer interest throughout a two and a quarter hours film that contains little action, an extremely well-known story, and a setting in a time almost two hundred years ago. She does this and does it well; this rendition of the Alcott novel stands head and shoulders above the most recent version (1994, starring Wynona Ryder, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst and others), even though the casts of the two movies are both laden with superb actors. Much of that standing is due to Gerwig’s direction, especially the use of non-linear storytelling, i.e. moving back and forth between different time periods in the story, one of the most distinctive elements of the film’s structure. The device is confusing at times but usually effective as a means of holding the viewer’s attention.

This story, if you’re not familiar with it, is about the four March sisters growing up in New England during the Civil War. Illness, love, vocation, family, art, and social awareness all enter into the plot in different ways, all affecting one or more of the girls. The actors are well-cast, a more important element of this film than it is in many films, and each one does a superb job, two of them (Saoirse Ronan as Jo and Florence Pugh as Amy) garnering Oscar nominations for acting. The pacing of the film is exquisite, and the sets, while not spectacular, are adequate to the task. As usual for great films, the supporting cast is very, very good with Laura Dern (Marmee March, the girls’ mother), Timothée Chalamet (Laurie Laurence), and Tracy Letts (the publisher, Mr. Dashwood) turning in the best performances.

Little Women is so much more than a sappy, “women’s picture.” It is a universal story of family life with sibling love and rivalry at the center, but with plenty of side themes like the question of life’s purpose, the importance of giving to others less fortunate than ourselves, the reasons for marriage and their comparison with each other, how to deal with change, and when to stick to principles and when to compromise. All these are beautifully explored in this exquisite time-proven story.

Drew Trotter

April 28, 2020

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