I get anxious from the hype that comes with any much-anticipated film’s release, and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women was no exception. I waited a few weeks, expecting things to cool a bit— but I always forget about Oscar Season. Little Women has netted multiple high-profile nominations in recent weeks, including for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Regardless of where one stands on the question of “how many times is too many times to adapt a book in a given decade,” it is my pleasure to say that Greta Gerwig more than proves the necessity of her adaptation.
I saw Lady Bird for the first time about two months ago and found it moderately pleasurable but felt deeply unimpressed and confused about the celebration it received two years ago. I was curious to see if Gerwig would expand her stylistic palette and take more chances with how she tells a story in Little Women. I was delighted, then, when the movie’s mechanisms began to spring into gear! Little Women unfolds for most of its runtime across a split timeline, with one line set in the post-Civil War narrative present and one set seven years prior. The film employs two coherent visual schemes for each timeline, which jump back and forth to creatively and emotionally find resonance and irony between the waning days of the March sisters’ childhood and the unromantic clarity of their adulthood. Unlike many other movies that explore the dichotomy of childhood and maturity, Little Women doesn’t presume that the innocence of childhood is without the anxieties and yearnings of adult life, nor that adulthood is without the sweetness and imaginative affirmation of youth.
But a dichotomy does exist between innocence and maturity, and between the two, Gerwig’s Little Women ultimately celebrates the capacity for mature people to consider their situation in a complex fashion, to feel multifaceted and conflicted feelings, to affirm themselves as meaningful inhabitants of their compromised lives. The film’s final sequences hinge on a genuinely brilliant metatextual play on the film’s split timeline that comments on the struggle to speak truthfully as a woman artist in a commercial society while still maintaining one’s integrity. The conclusion has echoes of the ending to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and as with its source material, while Little Women is every inch a coming-of-age story, it is most of all an artist’s coming-of-age story. The film’s narrative and stylistic adventurousness is a testament not only to the challenges of coming into adulthood and Jo’s successful journey into maturity, but also a certain sign that Greta Gerwig herself has developed a robust directorial maturity that has made me a true believer in her future as a filmmaker.