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The 21st century’s first film adaptation of Little Women opens with Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) standing in front of a frosted glass door, a portal from the cozy domestic sphere with which women like her are supposed to be content into the colder but more thrilling world of men. She opens the door and strides purposefully across the smoky room of a publishing house, the camera following her past dark wooden desks occupied by men in black suits who think they know what girls want to read. Jo plops herself down in front of one of these men, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), her knees bouncing and her fingertips stained with ink. The story her “friend” has submitted for publication will do just fine, Mr. Dashwood tells her, but she should remember that “If the main character’s a girl, make sure she’s married by the end.”

Louisa May Alcott’s classic coming-of-age novel sticks to this directive, but not without its own spirited jabs at the Victorian ideal of “the angel in the house.” Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s version of Little Women remixes the story in order to highlight Alcott’s genteel howls of protest, like an actor changing the meaning of a line by putting emphasis on a different word. She does this primarily by liberating Little Women from the restraints of chronology, weaving together the lives of the March sisters from early adolescence to young womanhood on a timeline that hopscotches among characters and decades with remarkable ease. This is accomplished through not only strong work from editor Nick Houy, but also an eye for visual patterns and character-based detail that underlines Gerwig’s empathy and affection for these four butterflies flapping against the glass of 19th-century paternalism.

The primary mood of the first half of Little Women is cheerful chaos, the camera scrambling to keep up in tracking shots following Jo and her sisters, Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), through their shabby but comfortable Massachusetts home, happy chatter ringing off of the walls. The Marches are not as rich as the Laurences next door, whose bachelor household frequently turns to the March girls for emotional support. But they’re also not as poor as the Hummels down the lane, with whom their saintly mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), insists the girls share their Christmas breakfast.

The sisters’ abolitionist pastor father, Mr. March (Bob Odenkirk), is away volunteering in the Civil War, turning the March household into a matriarchal incubator for ambition and imagination insulated from the expectations of the outside world. That is, except those of their wealthy, finger-wagging Aunt March (Meryl Streep), who insists that at least one of the March sisters marry a rich man in order to ensure the family’s financial future. Gerwig and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux reflect this loving atmosphere with the warm glow of candles and golden sunlight that stays consistent throughout the seasons. One day, this light will grow cold and gray as Jo and her sisters’ dreams collide with reality, but not today.

Photo: Sony Pictures

Jo views marriage as a death sentence, but eldest sister Meg is obsessed with romance and propriety, which she sees as one and the same. Over the years, the character of Meg has been received and portrayed as an uptight scold, but Gerwig likes her too much to share that interpretation. Here, Meg is both a starry-eyed dreamer and a compassionate realist who wants what’s best for those she loves. Likewise, youngest sister Amy has sometimes been played as a brat in previous adaptations. True, she can be jealous and vindictive, but Gerwig understands that her tantrums are driven by a premature cynicism. (As she demonstrated in Midsommar, Florence Pugh is the best in the business at holding back frustrated tears.) Even sweet, gentle, doomed Beth is more than a peaked symbol of feminine self-sacrifice in this Little Women, finding moments of nigh-spiritual satisfaction playing piano in the parlor of the Laurence’s luxurious, lifeless house. And although Little Women sometimes shares Jo’s doubts, it never loses faith in its fiery protagonist and her decisions.

Casting Timothée Chalamet as (to use a very modern phrase) fuckboy next door Laurie was a savvy move, and not just because he and Ronan have a pre-existing rapport from their work on Gerwig’s Lady Bird. With his floppy hair and soulful eyes, Chalamet is also the ideal canvas onto which the March girls—and, by extension, the audience—can sketch all manner of anxieties and desires. Little Women doesn’t prioritize romantic love over other kinds of intimacy and affection, but neither does it dismiss the need for such love as incompatible with being an independent woman. In fact, for the stubborn Jo, admitting that she’s lonely is a bigger challenge than leaving home to pursue her writing career. As with all the film’s emotional beats, the romantic tension between the characters develops organically, with just a little boost from Alexandre Desplat’s stirring, nostalgic score. Compared to the slow crescendo of the love stories, the film’s brush with death sometimes feels empty and sudden, but loss can feel that way in real life, too.

Gerwig’s overarching project with Little Women is building a fantasy space where girls can explore their identities in a safe, encouraging environment, whether it’s true love or artistic glory they long for. All too often, the lessons of womanhood—its disappointments, its inequities, its cruelties—are learned too soon and far too quickly, and the sacrifices made along the way are too great to bear. In one of the film’s more pointed feminist subtexts, Gerwig hints at a contrast between the idyllic ending of Jo’s story and the reality of Alcott’s life as a woman creator in 19th-century America. A title card at the beginning of the film quotes the author: “I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.”

Little Women is the best kind of Hollywood film: thoughtful yet escapist, sophisticated yet accessible, expertly crafted and deeply felt. The performances are all top notch—Ronan and Pugh, especially, breathe new life into their characters. Gerwig’s direction is also first rate, using symbolism and composition to reinforce the emotional arcs of the material. The film tweaks the structure of a well-known and beloved story and modernizes it with light meta touches, all while staying true to its old-fashioned belief in the virtues of kindness and selflessness. It’s a living, breathing, vibrant work of art, one that’s as bittersweet as life itself.

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