by Alan Yudman
I started writing this on the day the nominations for this year’s Director’s Guild of America awards were revealed. Once again, just like the Golden Globes… no women nominated. And since I began writing this review the Oscar nominations are out and it is also exclusively male.
No Lorene Scafaria. No Olivia Wilde. No Alma Har’el. No Mati Diop. (full disclosure… Ha’rel and Diop were nominated for first time director by the DGA). No Lulu Wang. No Marielle Heller. And most confounding… No Greta Gerwig.
I jumped off my sofa when I heard the news, then sat down and fell out of my chair when I read the list of nominees. Now don’t get me wrong, DGA nominees Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Taika Waititi, Sam Mendes and Bong Joon Ho all are deserving. Don’t get me started about Todd Phillips’ Oscar nomination. Gerwig does something so wonderful with LITTLE WOMEN that I cannot believe she was ignored.
This isn’t the first adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s story about the March sisters, but it may be best. The way Gerwig takes a classic novel, one that has been turned into two well-respected films, and makes something completely new is an incredible achievement. Gerwig’s most obvious innovation is the way she blows up the novel’s timeline. Her version jumps back and forth in time and it works perfectly. In lesser hands it would be a confusing mess, or a director would feel the need to put up a title card explaining where we are. Not here. Gerwig does it with storytelling, costumes, hair styles and tone. It is absolute genius.
The story is funny, emotionally wrenching and poignant. That is owed to an excellent screenplay (also Gerwig’s genius) and superb acting. The ensemble is excellent. The four sisters, Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen play off each other like actual sisters. There is love, rivalry and caring. Grief is not necessarily explored, but its depiction felt real. The girls after Beth dies (sorry,it’s an old book and if you didn’t know Beth dies going in, I cannot help you) and Chris Cooper’s wrenching moment when he hears Beth playing the piano his late daughter used to play. I apologize… I’m wiping tears from my keyboard right about now. But this movie isn’t really about grief. It is about life. Timothee Chalamet’s foppish portrayal of Laurie Laurence makes you hate him one minute and adore him the next. Having your heart broken, and eventually bouncing back. The joy of family. The joy of realizing your dreams. The joy of finding your place in the world after it seems you have no place.
It also is one of the most honest depictions of a writer’s life I have seen in a while. Ronan’s Jo struggles, gives up, then ultimately triumphs. It doesn’t romanticize it, but it’s hard for someone who aspires to write not to feel thrilled by the way the struggle is portrayed. Just like SPOTLIGHTand THE POST had scenes of what some call “newspaper porn”, you know the scenes where the type is set, the presses hum and the papers is churned out, this has “bookbinding porn”. Pages are cut, covers are sewn and imprinted… it is the most action you’ll see in this movie.
All the elements that go into telling that story are simply wonderful. Alexandre Desplat’s score. The cinematography by Yorick le Saux. The choices made and not made by Gerwig. It’s just a fabulous film.
I have heard comments that what Gerwig has done here is mostly unremarkable. It’s not groundbreaking or really that innovative. She didn’t push the creative envelope very hard. To this I say: ARE YOU NUTS? The movie is great. That greatness didn’t just arrive fully formed from outer space or another dimension. It grew inside the brilliant brain of Greta Gerwig and was pounded like clay into a beautiful piece of art. And if that doesn’t earn you a Best Director nomination, I’m not sure what the criteria might be. Awards don’t really matter in the long run. What matters is quality and LITTLE WOMEN’s legacy will be long and lasting.