Florence Pugh, left, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson are three...

Florence Pugh, left, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson are three of the four March sisters in Greta Gerwig's "Little Women." Credit: Sony Pictures/Wilson Webb

PLOT The lives of four young sisters coming of age in the late 19th Century.

CAST Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Timothee Chalamet, Laura Dern

RATED PG (mild peril and a death)


BOTTOM LINE Louisa May Alcott's classic novel gets a subtle update in this sharp and engaging film.

"Little Women," Greta Gerwig's adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel, comes on a like a standard Hollywood period piece — lush wardrobes, amber lighting, much weeping — but packs a sneaky modern punch. The story of the four March sisters, who come of age in the years during and after the Civil War, can sometimes seem sentimental and contrived. But Gerwig, who wrote and directed, knows that her 151-year-old source material isn't as quaint as it appears.

That book, alternately preachy and keenly insightful, can be a maddening read but seems to captivate successive generations. It's been brought to the screen five times already, most notably by Gillian Armstrong, whose acclaimed 1994 version is surely the best known. What makes the story so enduring is its heroine, Jo March, a willful tomboy with writerly dreams, and a clear stand-in for Alcott. With her brash personality and insistence on being called "sir," Jo is a feminist icon and perhaps an early queer one; today, she might qualify as trans. ("Poor Jo," one sister says of her gender, "it can't be helped.")

Here she's played with glittering eyes and jumpy intensity by Saoirse Ronan, who fittingly dominates the film. With father away at war, Jo is essentially the man of the house. Compared to her, the other March sisters seem almost pitiably normal: Meg (Emma Watson), the quintessential flighty teen; Amy (Florence Pugh), the fine-art dilettante; and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), the good-hearted baby of the bunch. Laura Dern sparkles as "Marmee," the patient March matriarch, while Meryl Streep cakewalks through her performance as crotchety Aunt March, whose attempts to hammer the girls into good marriages meet with mixed success.

"Little Women" gets off to a rocky start, alternating between past and present somewhat confusingly. (Pugh is the only actress who remembers to play her younger character as a foot-stomping child, helping us distinguish between the early and later periods.) Once the film finds its rhythm, though, it draws us in. The scenes of sisterly love and bickering are nicely rendered; Timothee Chalamet, playing the wealthy Theodore "Laurie" Laurence, is perfect as the boy who throws a monkey wrench into a family of close-knit females.

The film's masterstroke comes when Jo finally finds her soul mate, a flight of romantic fancy that Alcott acknowledged as sales-driven hokum. Gerwig finds an approach that is both brilliant and daring, a meta-maneuver that stays faithful to the novel yet allows Jo to retain her independent spirit. In that moment, this "Little Women" feels like a much more modern story, and the one that Alcott truly wanted to tell. 

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