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Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ understands Amy March

Timothée Chalamet, left, and Florence Pugh play Laurie and Amy in “Little Women.” (Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Amy March, the youngest of the “Little Women,” has historically been the least liked of the four. Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 coming-of-age novel positions her as a foil to her older sister Jo, the author’s semi-autobiographical stand-in, and by contrast emphasizes Amy’s youthful selfishness and materialism. She eventually outgrows these traits, but they leave a lasting impression on young readers.

The latest adaptation of “Little Women,” now in theaters, suggests that Amy is just misunderstood — a realization those same readers might reach as they reflect on the novel as adults. Similar to how Greta Gerwig approached her solo directorial debut, “Lady Bird,” the filmmaker challenges the black-and-white notion of likability that boxes in so many women, real and fictional. She exposes the childhood insecurities and adulthood practicalities underlying Amy’s behavior, embodied by a capable actress: Florence Pugh, playing opposite “Lady Bird” star Saoirse Ronan’s Jo.

Emma Watson and Saoirse Ronan star as the March sisters in Greta Gerwig's "Little Women." (Video: Columbia Pictures)

While Gerwig tweaks elements of the classic story — she allots more screen time to Amy than other versions have, for instance, and jumps back and forth between the March sisters’ girlhood and young adulthood — she remains faithful to the core of what Alcott wrote. Jo is still stubborn and passionate about her writing. Amy, the pesky little sister, is jealous of Jo but has her own artistic ambitions. Meg (Emma Watson), the eldest, imparts wisdom and isn’t ashamed of her desire to live a more traditional, domestic life. Beth (Eliza Scanlen), the third sister, is as sweet and gentle as ever.

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Gerwig also borrows from the book a distressing scene in which Amy, upset that Jo and Meg left her at home to go to the theater with their neighbor, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), burns one of Jo’s stories out of spite. Amy defiantly reveals what she has done once Jo returns, and her immediate reaction to Jo’s outrage over the loss of her hard work is rather impudent. Soon enough, Amy realizes the error of her ways. They make amends after Jo helps save her from drowning in a nearby pond.

Instances like this contribute to the idea that Amy is more spoiled than her sisters, that she gets away with more. Sacrifice is a theme woven throughout “Little Women,” which takes place during the nation’s bloodiest war. As the girls’ father (Bob Odenkirk) serves in the Union Army, their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), tries to instill in them an ability to live with less. For the most part, it works: Meg happily marries poor, while Jo writes for little pay. Beth, because of her poor health, is unable to contribute much.

Amy listens to the family’s wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep), who takes note of Jo’s disregard for marriage and tells the youngest March: “You are your family’s last hope.” She accompanies her aunt to Paris, where she takes painting classes and is courted by a rich, boring man. She also encounters a slightly older Laurie, who has gotten over Jo and questions why Amy is settling for a man she might not love.

In a powerful scene that clearly exhibits Gerwig’s stamp on the story, Amy informs Laurie that she isn’t ashamed of her desire to marry rich. As a woman, she isn’t able to make enough money to earn a living, and whatever she earns would belong to her husband anyway. Even their children would be his property.

“So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is,” she says.

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As an adult, Amy’s pursuit of wealth matures into one driven not by materialistic self-interest, but by a realistic view of how the world operates. Though Amy ends up with Laurie, her childhood crush, Gerwig doesn’t paint the character as someone who again wriggled “out of the hard parts in life,” as a teenage Jo says of her sister, but as a woman for whom the practical path simply wound up a pleasurable one, too.

Also remarkable in this year’s “Midsommar,” Pugh has earned best supporting actress nominations from nearly a dozen critics associations. Her performance in “Little Women” obtains the difficult balance of capturing Amy’s bright and brash nature in one moment, her solemn and reserved behavior in the next.

Somehow, Gerwig’s Amy March steals the show. But this time, she worked for it.

Correction: This story initially misidentified the actor who plays the girls’ father. It’s actually Bob Odenkirk, not Chris Cooper.

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