As it happens, Gerwig isn’t in “Little Women,” but as a writer-director she maintains a constant benevolent presence. This intelligent, exuberantly affectionate iteration of the classic novel doesn’t mess with the bones of Alcott’s beloved work: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March are still nestled cozily with Marmee in their modest home in Civil War-era Massachusetts. Their neighbor, the puppyish Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, still pines for Jo while he gazes at her through a windowpane that acts like his own private proscenium arch. Calamities will befall the March family, as will good fortune; heartache, romance, love and betrayal will course through their lives with epic intensity and humdrum dailiness.
In Gerwig’s capable hands, though, even the most familiar contours of “Little Women” feel new, not because she has the temerity to redefine Alcott’s masterpiece, but because she subtly reframes it. For one thing, she focuses as much on the March sisters as adults as children, toggling back and forth in time to accentuate the realities of growing up vs. the wild and honeyed memories of a charmed childhood. When “Little Women” opens, Jo March — played to perfection by Saoirse Ronan — is selling her stories in New York to a skeptical publisher, making her way in a crowded, smoky world. It’s not until a few scenes later that we’re cast back to Jo’s girlhood in Concord, a softer, more amber-lit universe in which she and her sisters are beginning to chart their own futures.
The time shifts can be jarring as “Little Women” gets underway, and Gerwig front loads the film with not one but three lively dance scenes, each meant to delineate a stratum of 19th century social class. The energy, at least at first, feels scattered and unfocused. But once the movie finds its feet, the characters reveal themselves. Eldest Meg (Emma Watson) wants to be a wife and mother; little Amy (Florence Pugh) an artist. Ethereal Beth (Eliza Scanlen), “the quiet one,” plays the piano beautifully, while Jo furiously writes whatever comes into her head — usually a play that the foursome act out with unbridled theatricality. With their father away at war, the March household is overseen by their nurturing, idealistic mother Marmee (Laura Dern), as well as the more vinegary Aunt March, played with amusing tartness and fed-up side-eye by Meryl Streep.
These early-life scenes in “Little Women” are so tender, so brimming with mischief and merriment, that it feels as if the film will collapse under a duvet of forced frivolity and preciousness. But Gerwig resists that temptation by keeping her eye firmly on the economics to which Alcott herself was all too keenly aware, and allowing her characters to experience joy even within their severest ructions and reversals. When Jo is meeting with that publisher, he tells her to keep her stories “short and spicy,” and if they feature a woman, to make sure she’s married or dead by the end. Throughout “Little Women” Alcott the author morphs with Jo the character, as she follows his advice, with concomitant laughs, sighs and tears.
Attractively designed and filmed and set to a gorgeously lush musical score by Alexandre Desplat, “Little Women” could be seen as the urtext for everything from “Sex and the City” to “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” wherein like Laurie, the audience watches the female protagonists, not as an act of pure observation but of identification and self-definition. Long before viewers debated whether they were a Carrie or a Samantha, women (and surely more than a few men) wondered if they were Jo the tomboy or Meg the romantic. The genius of Gerwig’s version is that it preserves that deep psychological pleasure of “Little Women” while acknowledging that all of those archetypes existed — and still do — within a rigged system.
That idea is best expressed, not by Jo — exquisitely brought to life by Ronan in a headstrong, clear-eyed performance — but little Amy, whom Pugh portrays with a perpetual pout and far more gravitas than she’s been given in the past. “Don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition,” she says firmly to Laurie during a pivotal scene, “because it is.”
It bears noting that Laurie is played by Timothée Chalamet, whose languidly graceful performance is almost Keatonesque in its playful physicality. As in Gerwig’s directorial debut “Lady Bird,” he and Ronan are terrific foils in an unrequited love story for the ages. This is a big, generous-hearted movie, as smart as it is pretty; as an homage to female ambitions, appetites and irrepressible will, it feels both true to its period and entirely of the moment. It would be hard to find a “Little Women” more suited to its times, for love or money.
PG. Opens Christmas Day at area theaters. Contains mature thematic elements and brief smoking. 135 minutes.