Lovable, kind and funny, “Little Women” is a movie you want to hug.
Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” follow-up works as both an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel and a mini-biopic about Alcott, who based novelist Jo March on herself. “Little Women” shifts between two time frames: when Jo and sisters Meg, Amy and Beth are teenagers, and seven years later, when Jo has moved away to try and make a living. She’s called back to the family’s Massachusetts home, though, to help with a couple of emergencies.
Although it’s off-putting for a minute or two, the non-chronological structure pays dividends. It allows Gerwig to connect events thematically so we can see, for instance, how something that happens to one of the Marches becomes material for Jo. And, in the most moving sequence, the structure draws a link between illnesses that devastate the Marches in both time periods.
Gerwig stages two scenes identically — in both, Jo wakes and descends a staircase in the family home to get an illness update — which increases our understanding of Jo’s reaction while creating a fresh way to visualize a scene that everyone who has read “Little Women” knows and dreads.
Those readers will definitely recognize the iconic characters in Gerwig’s “Little Women,” but she modernizes the 150-year-old tale. Despite the bonnets, it doesn’t feel like a period piece because the speech patterns are so contemporary. That’s especially true of bratty Amy, who can easily come off like the biggest pill in the Bay State but who is utterly delightful in the hands of Florence Pugh (also so good in this year’s “Midsommar,” in which she also wore a crown of flowers). Amy, Jo’s archenemy in the March house (if a family that holds hands this much can be said to have archenemies), is self-centered and shortsighted. Neither of those sounds like an endearing quality but Pugh works magic in making her Amy someone you might not want as a roomie but who you’d love to dish with at a party.
It’s astonishing, really, how many of the “Little Women” performers make big impacts. Gerwig has cast a lot of big names, so we come into the movie with established views of them, and she has crafted moments for nearly all to shine: Timothee Chalamet’s wounded reaction after a spurned marriage proposal hits especially hard, but Chris Cooper is quietly moving as a neighbor who has a crush on all the Marches (I get it) and Meryl Streep brings complicated humanity to mean old Aunt March, whose constant criticism is revealed as a function of her worry that no one is looking out for her female relatives in a time when few women can provide for themselves.
That’s where the movie feels most modern. Gerwig makes “Little Women” a tribute to women. There are big triumphs when, for instance, Jo (Saoirse Ronan, dependably excellent) negotiates with a gruff publisher (Tracy Letts, her dad in “Lady Bird”). But also there are smaller moments of revelation like one in which the Marches’ eternally and some would say annoyingly self-sacrificing mom, Marmee, admits that patience is something she works hard at, confessing, “I’m angry nearly every day of my life.”
It would not have been easy to be a smart, capable woman in the 1860s, and this “Little Women” makes sure we see why, with Gerwig crafting an ending that offers a new spin on Alcott’s original. To the end, Jo struggles with her belief that she must choose between a career and romance — Jo, who has previously advised sister Meg not to marry, saying, “You will be bored of him in two years and we will be interesting forever.”
Jo turns out to be wrong about the “bored of him,” part but this vibrantly entertaining “Little Women” is further evidence that she’s right about one thing. The Marches will be interesting forever.