Little Women (2019)

At last, we come to the fourth and final movie I'll be looking at. I realize there are countless TV movies, mini-series, and even an anime, but considering this isn't really a Christmas story, I feel like this is already bending the rules.

Only this one adaptation actually might qualify as a Christmas movie. Sort of. Kind of. I'll get to that in a minute.

First, I want to cut to the chase. This is, by several orders of magnitude, my favorite of the bunch. It's absolutely fantastic, incorporating iconic sequences, enhancing and updating both the humor and drama, and simultaneously exploring the intricacies of the author's complex relationship with the work and by extension that between reality and fiction in general. It is a phenomenal movie.

Greta Gerwig's approach differs from earlier versions in that she doesn't follow the book's blueprint. Rather than tell this story linearly, she intercuts between the first and second halves of the story, and in so doing contrasts both memory and story with reality. It's a work about nostalgia, both as we remember it and as it's marketed through media.

And if you're playing some kind of drinking game any time I mention nostalgia as the dominant theme in American Christmas media post-World War II, now's the time to down that bottle of Schnapps, because here's where the holidays enter the picture. Because, while they don't play a significantly larger role in terms of the movie's runtime, Gerwig uses color pallets and framing devices traditionally associated with Christmas family movies to establish the tone for the past, in effect leveraging the audience's associations with that subgenre so we see Jo's childhood (or perhaps Alcott's) from her POV. The whole of that part of the story is seen through warm colors and accompanied by loud, cinematic music that evokes the same emotions.

The structure of Gerwig's adaptation relies on this trick, as we need to feel the ebb and flow between warm memories and cold reality, dreams and sacrifices, and - of course - fiction and truth. I should note this isn't a refutation of nostalgia, but a serious look at the ways it shapes us. Her movie explores disappointment and tragedy, but also joy and accomplishment. It's an exploration of these themes, rather than a simple statement.

There's an ethereal quality to this movie. Gerwig uses montages to evoke the feeling of memory and connections through time, a technique that also has the added benefit of making the movie fly by. Despite being more than four hours in length, this has a brisk pace and never outstays its welcome. You feel like you're looking at a work of expression driven by pure emotion, despite knowing this could only have been accomplished with intricate planning.

Let's dig into a few more details concerning how and where Christmas is utilized. First, the movie differs from its predecessors in not opening with direct references to the holiday - instead, it starts with Jo as an adult woman selling a story then returning to the boarding house she's staying in. We're also given brief looks at Meg and Amy, with the latter running into Laurie in Paris.

This scene provides the first mention of the holidays, when Amy invites Laurie to a New Year's party. It's only an aside - the essential parts relate to Amy's feelings for Laurie - but it implies perhaps the entirety of the opening is set around the holidays (though this doesn't quite work with the autumn appearance of the exterior of Meg's New England home).

Regardless, it also serves as a connection to an upcoming flashback to the explicitly Christmas setting drawn from the opening chapters of the book. Unlike the cold realism of the opening, this is shot and scored like a classic Hollywood Christmas movie, elements of which are retained for all future flashbacks. In some ways, this looks and feels like the 1949 adaptation, while the sequences set seven years later are more reminiscent of the 1994 film (profoundly stupid side note: I find it oddly appropriate the last two digits of those films are inversions of each other).

The Christmas well runs dry about thirty minutes in, aside from a brief sequence in which Beth recovers from her illness, the girls' father returns, and the family celebrates the next Christmas together. This sequence is also in the 1994 movie, though that evoked nostalgia as juxtaposition with Jo's concurrent state of mind, while Gerwig's version is contrasting a happy memory with Beth's passing in the later timeline.

It's all incredibly effective. I've enjoyed elements of all four versions of Little Women I watched or re-watched this year, but this is the only one where I consistently laughed at the jokes and felt the weight of the drama. To be clear, I'm not the target demographic, and I know from the way the others were received that they all appealed to girls in the eras they were released - I don't want to make it sound like they were unsuccessful in some way. But on top of everything else Gerwig manages in this film, she makes the characters, story, and emotions feel larger and more mature than the previous versions attempted.

In addition, the cast is fantastic. I'm not sure Saoirse Ronan and Laura Dern are better as Jo and Marmee than Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon, but it's a close call. The rest of the cast, for my money, is better than any version we've seen before.

There's one caveat, though, or perhaps half a caveat. Gerwig deviates from earlier productions in casting all of the March sisters once, with the same four actresses portraying their characters as children and young women. For the most part, this works really well, but the movie does strain believability in asking us to accept Florence Pugh as a 13 year-old.

I don't think this is a mistake, mind you. The choice to intercut between timelines wouldn't have worked with multiple casts, and I wouldn't trade Pugh's phenomenal performance in the later era for anything (her speech about marriage is the movie's most powerful moment). But it's worth noting there is a trade-off here in believability around suspension of disbelief.

I could go on - I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of how Gerwig uses the time jumps and contrasting styles to comment on art, gender politics, and more. But this is already running long, and frankly Patrick Willam's video essay does a better job than I probably could.

Suffice to say, this movie is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys movies. And, unlike the earlier adaptations, I think it integrates holiday elements just enough into its themes to qualify as a Christmas movie, despite not passing the 50% runtime litmus test. Regardless of when you watch it, though, it's a fantastic film.