What does it mean to be punk? To me, it is about bursting over-inflated egos, defying pompous icons, challenging prescribed social roles, and celebrating self expression over conformity. That’s a pretty good summation of Greta Gerwig’s brief in her approach to retelling Louisa May Alcott’s classic American novel, Little Women.
I am a Gerwig fan. I loved her in Frances Ha and Mistress America, both filmed from scripts she co-wrote (with partner Noah Baumbach), dug her immensely in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, and was impressed by Lady Bird, her stunningly fun and astute coming of age film. She is immensely perceptive as a writer and a figure of empathy as an on-screen performer. So I was a little surprised she selected the slightly hoary Alcott novel as her next project. But her script and direction show us Alcott’s iconoclastic heart and creates a fresh and exciting film. Finding something new, fresh, and rebellious in a 150 year old tale of childhood domestic memories seemed an impossible order. But the film is fresh and defiant, like its heroine, Jo March, and its visionary, Greta Gerwig. That’s at least a little bit punk, isn’t it?
So what does Gerwig do to shake up this often remade classic? Time jumps. We are in the past, in the present, in real life with Alcott, in the world of the roman à clef with author Jo March. The actors portraying the March girls are so young, I sometimes had trouble knowing where I was in time (is that a 20 year old playing a teen or playing a 20 something?) Yet, it wasn’t unsettling and Gerwig usually left enough clues for you to get a toehold quickly enough. I liked the blurring of Jo and Louisa, something that spoke a fundamental truth about the work (the novel Little Women) and was also deft film making--it used the visual medium to advantage to drive home the point of the equivalence of these women.
Greta takes some liberties with the story--the school for girls in the film was one for boys in the book--still, that seem to be channeling Alcott’s inner urges. In her diaries, Alcott discusses being forced to marry Jo off in the novel, something she had not intended or wanted. This becomes a scene in the film, where essentially Jo and Louisa become one in the same, using the publisher’s requirement as a bargaining chip to improve her book deal. It seems a school for girls is closer to what a less restrained Alcott would have wanted to write about. And it would have been run by the unmarried Jo.
Another change also gives Jo more agency. She gets her inheritance, Aunt March’s grand house, and makes plans on her own without her publisher-enforced love interest’s even being in the picture. When Jo makes a romantic gesture, it is at the urging of those who know her best, her family, especially her sisters. It underscores the centrality of her family to her true self and also made the decision to pursue romance ultimately her own. Jo at last has the independence Alcott would love to have provided for her.
The movie is lush. The cinematography is poetic. Gerwig insisted that she film in Massachusetts. The landscape feels authentic to the time and place of the novel and the camera loves everything it takes in. I found myself thinking of Altman’s Gosford Park, another almost painterly film that still feels lived in and realistic. And scarves! So many scarves! New Englanders need scarves and everyone wears one. Hoorah!
Alcott, famously, did not want to write Little Women, and did so only because her publisher demanded a novel for girls. She wrote it quickly, based on the only girls she knew, her sisters. The book has been a totem for girls since it was published, readers picking a Marsh sister as their own avatar, the “are you a Charlotte or Samantha” of the YA set. I grew up with a family friend, a Meg, who named her three daughters for the other March sisters. This book is that central to some. I was too busy reading a heady mix of horse books, Tolkein, and poetry to make time for Little Women in my own youth. Gerwig’s dive down to the meaningful girl power at the heart of the truly seminal novel, inventor of a type of domestic realism, tells me I should have made time.
I have only seen snippets of Katherine Hepburn and June Allyson as Jo in earlier adaptations of Little Women. These movies each felt overwhelmingly nostalgic, rose-colored. Greta Gerwig’s film made me appreciate the boldness of Alcott for her time, the iconoclastic punk af essence of Alcott’s audacity. This film is great; it made me want to read the book. So bursting over-inflated egos and pompous icons? Several deserved comeuppences, so CHECK. The very act of a second-time film director taking on what became an old chestnut does those things. Challenging social roles? A woman director who understands the critical role of artistic and personal freedom and finds and liberates Alcott’s voice--yes, CHECK. We end up with a well realized work of expression and celebration of self, damn the conformists. CHECK.
Ipso facto, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women IS demonstrably proven to be punk AF.