Little Women (2019)

Last December when the marketing campaign for Little Women began — see it bros or you’re sexist — I tried to buy a ticket on Christmas Day, not so much to prove my “woke,” male feminist credentials, but simply because it was the least objectionable movie playing in the newly restored Cranford Theater down the street from my house. I have no intention of seeing The Rise of Skywalker. The good news for feminists and Elizabeth Warren supporters everywhere is that it was sold out, not in hipster Brooklyn, but in the deep, dark cultural waste land that is suburban New Jersey.

While Little Women may not appeal to the white Boomer out in Trumplandia with a “Make America Great” bumper sticker on his Ford-150, or to working class black women in Newark and West Philadelphia, it’s actually a pretty good movie. Directed by Greta Gerwig, who also directed 2017’s Ladybird and starred in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, Little Women is beautifully photographed. The cast, is almost uniformly excellent, even Timothée Chalamet, who in spite of occasionally looking a bit like a member of a boy band who accidentally wandered onto the set, makes the most of his underwritten part. The non-linear timeline, while occasionally confusing to someone who hasn’t read the book, doesn’t break new cinematic ground, but it is essential to the issues Gerwig’s interpretation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel is trying to explore.

I’m not sure exactly why I’ve never read Little Women — it was sitting on my bookshelf for decades but if I had to guess, I’d say it subconsciously triggered in my mind an association with the 1970s TV show Little House on the Prairie, which was dreary Koch Brothers libertarian propaganda wrapped up in hazy nostalgia for our hardscrabble existence on the American frontier. Louisa May Alcott, however, was no Laura Ingalls Wilder, a vicious racist who celebrated the white man’s colonization of land recently stolen from the ethnically cleansed Lakota Sioux. On the contrary, Alcott’s father Bronson Alcott was not only an important figure in the New England Renaissance, a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, he was a militant abolitionist who helped lead riots against the Fugitive Slave Act. Unfortunately for his children, however, he was also a working-class intellectual with no inherited money, and very little inclination to work his way into a more practical career. Consequently, while very much a part of the educated elite, Louisa May Alcott grew up in poverty, genuine poverty where she and her sisters rarely had good clothes or enough to eat.

While poverty is an issue in Gerwig’s Little Women, it’s not the kind of poverty Louisa May Alcott experienced growing up in 19th Century Concord. Rather, it’s the kind of poverty a middle-class white girl would face in hipster Brooklyn. The rent is too damned high. You never have quite enough money. You can never buy the things you really want. You look at your rich neighbors — especially that cute boy with the big trust fund —with a mixture of admiration and envy. You constantly wonder what you really want to do with your life. If Ladybird was Frances Ha the Teen Years, then Little Women is Ladybird on the Prairie, well not exactly the prairie, but you get the idea. Louisa May Alcott’s “little women,” who were all teenage girls from age 11 to age 16, have all become woman well into their 20s. The United States Civil War, an important part of the novel, has largely been written out of the story. Two of the sisters, Jo March, the book’s narrator played by the Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, and Amy March, the youngest played by the English actress Florence Pugh, dominate the movie, although the oldest sister Meg, played by the English actress Emma Watson, is a quiet presence in the background with a compelling, realistic story.

(If I’m pointing out the fact that none of the March sisters is played by an American actress it’s partly to praise their acting. Saoirse Ronan, who annoys me in her native Irish brogue, is far more attractive as an American. When the March sisters put on one of Jo’s plays, and pretend to be British, they sound like Americans clumsily pretending to be British, not like British, Irish and Australian actors letting themselves slip back into their native speech patterns.)

America in 2019, while different, is still the same civilization as America in 1868. If you put Jo March or Louisa May Alcott in a time machine and dropped either of them off in modern day Brooklyn, or Concord Massachusetts, they’d certainly appreciate the vastly expanded opportunities for young, single women, but I doubt either of them would experience significant culture shock. Greta Gerwig was actually raised as a Unitarian Universalist, the church Bronson Alcott helped found. Gerwig’s decision, therefore, to frame the issue of marriage in terms of the 2010s — as a liberated woman’s anxiety over whether or not she should marry the cute boy with the big trust fund or live up to the promise she made to herself as a teenager to live her life independent of men — instead of in terms of the 1860s —- marry the first man you can find with a decent manners and a respectable career or end up as a miserable spinster — makes sense dramatically. Florence Pugh’s Amy’s passionate declaration to Timothée Chalamet’s Laurie — the cute boy with the big trust fund — that marriage is indeed an economic and not a romantic dilemma still holds true in the United States of 2020, but certainly not to the same extent as it did in 1868. The difference between the two is part of what the film is trying to make us think about, and I think it largely succeeds.

Little Women opens in 1868 in a publisher’s office in New York City. Jo March, now in her mid-20s, is sitting in a chair opposite a severe, elderly man, who’s flipping through a short story she submitted for publication. He laughs, makes a few corrections, offers her twenty dollars, a significant bit of money for 1868, and asks her what name she’d like it published under. When she tells him she doesn’t care, that she’s writing to make money, not to make her name artistically, we realize that the difference in the social position of the write in 1868 from the social position of the writer in 2019 is probably much bigger than the difference in the status of young, single women. Indeed, the old man who accepts Jo’s story isn’t looking for high art. He wants trashy, sensationalist fiction, albeit with a happy ending, that he can sell as popular entertainment. In 2019, Jo probably has fewer opportunities as an artist than she did in 1868. These days, without a degree from the right Ivy League school, the right unpaid internships, and the right circle of friends in Brooklyn or LA, nobody’s going publish your novel. Four major corporations, including Sony and Disney, control almost all of the cultural output Americans are willing to pay for. Back in New York City in 1868, almost anybody could start a newspaper or a literary magazine. There were quite literally thousands of ways you could break into print.

(Note: Gerwig’s Little Women was distributed by Sony.)

After dashing back to her boarding house, running wildly through the streets in a clear homage to the Modern Love scene in Gerwig’s earlier movie Frances Ha, which in turn was an homage to the French director’s Leos Carax’s film Mauvais Sang, Jo returns to a letter from her mother. Beth, the youngest March sister, who has long struggled with a weak respiratory system brought on by a childhood bout of Scarlett Fever, is now on her deathbed.  Jo’s post-collegiate life in hipster Brooklyn, including a budding romance with a handsome but pompous young French intellectual — Is there any other kind? — played by Louis Garrel from Bertolucci’s film The Dreamers, will have to be put on hold. Like her older sister Jo, Amy March, played by the Australian actress Eliza Scanlen, is an aspiring artist, in her case a musician. In fact, all but one of the March sisters are all artists. Jo is a writer. Beth is a pianist, Amy is an aspiring painter. Jo wants Meg, the oldest, and supposedly the prettiest, to become an actress, but Meg is also the most traditional. She wants to be a wife and a mother.

Beth’s dramatic arc, while overshadowed by Jo’s and Amy’s, is also the most revealing. Back in 1861, while their father was away serving as a chaplain in Mr. Lincoln’s army, the March sisters were about to celebrate Christmas with a large, Christmas breakfast. Their mother “Marmee,” however, played by Laura Dern, one of the most versatile actresses from my own “Boomer X” generation, returns home to offer them what amounts to both a moral challenge and a moral obligation. Would they donate the rich Christmas feast to a family of poor German immigrants, including six children, who live nearby in a miserable little shack? Of course they do. How could they say no? The scene is quite revealing, and not particularly flattering, about Greta Gerwig’s views on class. The poor immigrants, while grateful for the food, do not speak. While Louisa May Alcott may have written the scene as an attempt to cover up her family’s own desperate poverty — if you have food to give away you’re not on the bottom of society — for Greta Gerwig, the impoverished German immigrants are not only a mute “other,” they are a death sentence for the saintly Beth, who throughout her teenage years continues to bring the children food, and eventually contracts the disease that will eventually kill her.

The portrayal of the desperately poor immigrants is in fact an example of how the film’s fractured timeline and setting in the 19th Century allows Gerwig, probably subconsciously,  to smuggle a reactionary narrative arc into an otherwise progressive film. Back in the 1860s, the immigrant “other” was German and Irish, exactly like Gerwig herself, but in 2020 nobody’s going to see fair skinned northern Europeans as the “other.” Try to imagine, however, if Gerwig had set her Little Women in the 2010s and Beth contracted a disease, not from German but from Central American immigrants. Woke Twitter would immediately call for her cancellation. Janet Maslin would call for a boycott. “Ladies. Don’t let your boyfriends see this racist film.” Donald Trump would declare it a masterpiece, and all over the rust belt and the south dudes with Ford F150s and women in red, Make America Great hats would flood the theaters shouting “build that wall.”

I’m not saying, of course, that Greta Gerwig is a racist. Quite the contrary, she is exploring the relationship between poverty and the artistic imagination. One of the film’s most clever images is the proximity between the grand mansion of the wealthy Laurence family to the middle-class house of the March family, who live in the ragged edge of the middle class, and the miserable little shack of the diseased immigrants. Beth is not only an aspiring pianist, she’s an incredibly talented one. Laurie’s wealthy but kindly old grandfather, Mr. Laurence played by Chris Cooper, had earlier in his life lost his own daughter to a similar illness. When he offers Beth the opportunity to use his late daughter’s piano, and she sits down and plays a difficult etude by Chopin, she’s clearly no aspiring musician, but a full fledged concert pianist. She’s only 13 years old and the March family doesn’t own a piano? Where did she learn how to play so well? We don’t ask. Neither does Mr. Laurence. The scene is magical, almost as if the ghost of Mr. Laurence’s late daughter had never died, but had instead graduated from some sort of heavenly Julliard, and returned to haunt him in the form Beth March. Sadly, Mr. Laurence’s joy is short lived for almost as soon as he decides to give her the piano outright, he notices that she is “burning up,” already suffering from the Scarlett Fever that will eventually kill her. Indeed, while the idea that you can become a great pianist without any practice at all seems reactionary — you either have talent or you don’t — Beth’s career as a musician is taken away by poverty almost as soon as it becomes possible. Nobody comes out and says “damn those poor immigrants and those poor immigrant diseases that deprived us of a great concert pianist.” The film, however, expresses a fairly universal truth. Poverty kills the artistic imagination.

Amy March, the toughest and probably the smartest of the March sisters, also has the most realistic character arc. An aspiring painter, she travels to Europe as a companion to their Aunt March, Meryl Streep, and studies painting in Rome and Paris. Amy, however, realizes that while may have some basic proficiency in drawing and painting, she will never have genius, never be able to express what she really wants. She briefly considers a loveless marriage with some handsome rich guy, who we never really meet, but long time family friend Laurie — the cute boy with the huge trust fund played by Timothée Chalamet who had earlier proposed to and been rejected by Jo — passionately urges her to marry him instead. Amy initially says no. She’s sick of playing second fiddle to Jo, especially when she’s loved Laurie since her childhood, but their eventual marriage is inevitable and logical. Indeed, after Amy explains to Laurie how marriage is an economic, not a romantic institution, it’s difficult to see why she would continue to reject him. If, as she says, a woman has no options other than marriage, and if she doesn’t want to pursue a life as an artist, why indeed would she reject the cute boy with the kindly, generous grandfather and the huge trust fund she’s loved every since they were children? Of course they get married. Not to would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face and Amy is much too smart for that. She gets to have her cake and eat it too, to live happily ever after with her childhood friend, the cute boy with the huge trust fund. Yes, he drinks a little too much and doesn’t seem to be serious about his career, but clearly these aren’t insurmountable obstacles. It’s impossible to believe that the angelically handsome Timothée Chalamet drinks too much anyway. Just take the happy ending Amy. Then go on to act in Marvel comic book super hero movies and make the big bucks. Don’t feel too guilty about stealing your sister’s boyfriend. You already torched her first novel then fell through the ice to make her feel guilty. What more can you do?

Jo, in spite of herself, also has a happy ending. It’s not that she actually wants one. Jo would prefer to martyr herself to a life of artistic struggle, but alas she gets lucky. Aunt March leaves Jo her grand mansion, which is probably worth a pretty penny these days in suburban Boston, and she writes the novel Little Women in a burst of inspiration. The severe, elderly publisher, initially unwilling to publish it, asks for more trashy short stories, but his three daughters will have none of it. Buy that book, they demand, “we want to know what happens to the little women.” Jo returns home to open a progressive, coeducational school in the grand house — Bronson Alcott wrote extensively on the idea of a school system with no corporal punishment or any kind of punitive discipline — and then finds its first faculty member. It’s the handsome, but pompous French intellectual from Act I, who had handsomely and pompously told her to stop writing trashy short stories and find herself as an artist, and had  been heartbroken over her sudden disappearance from their boarding house in New York City. Now he’s come up to Massachusetts to track her down. Jo is initially cold and distant, and he initially intends to head to California, “where they don’t hate immigrants so much,” and Jo really wants to live up to her youthful ideal of living her life without a man, but just about everybody, her sisters, her other, Mr. Laurence and Laurie, even her publisher, persuade her to run after him and declare her love. She does. They’re a perfect couple.

(Note: In the novel the handsome young Frenchman is a bumbling middle-aged German but screw that. A viral young Justin Trudeau lookalike with a sexy five o’clock shadow and a mass of curly black hair makes for a much better happy ending than some doddery old Kraut.)

In the end Jo March is forced by everybody she loves into a anti-feminist happy ending.

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