Greta Gerwig’s debut feature Ladybird is a coming-of-age film with an honesty that is rare to the genre. The film ties up its thematic threads, only to end with an admission that the problems and anxieties of our teenage years do not simply go away but merely mutate or become replaced by new ones. Ladybird knows that coming-of-age is a process that never really stops and that the chapter headings with which we order our life are imposed by us rather than naturally occurring. The different stages of our life bleed and flow into one another rather than falling forward like a series of crashing dominoes.
While Ladybird is about the teenage years of girlhood, Gerwig’s sophomore effort, her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, is firmly about the next stage, that of young adulthood. It tells the now familiar story of the four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – as they grow from children into adults, during the American Civil War and in the years following it, as they navigate all the questions of self-identity, sisterly love and of marriage which would have plagued most women at the time. Rather than tell the story chronologically as Alcott herself did, Gerwig flits between two time periods, the Civil War and seven years later, so that the film’s audience knows from early on what readers of the book must discover: that Jo will move to New York and become a struggling writer; that Amy will tour France with their Aunt March; that Meg will be happily married though financially struggling; and that Beth, after being ill with scarlet fever, will never be restored to full health.
This decision has many implications. One is that it simply makes Gerwig’s adaptation stand out among the many other ones. On a deeper level however, it demonstrates that Gerwig is more concerned with themes rather than narratives, specifically those that relate to identity, mainly investigated along the lines of class, gender and self-discovery, artistic and otherwise. The film moves gracefully between its two timelines with the transitions always coming at a moment when the present echoes the past or the past will carry reverberations into the future. Yorick Le Saux’s gorgeous cinematography meditatively evokes the different chronologies through the warming brightness of nostalgia contrasted against the sombre, restrained greys of a more saturnine present.
All this helps to refocus Gerwig’s own intentions, but it also makes the source material appear more cinematic. For those familiar with the text, it reinvigorates and freshens the well-loved material while bestowing a certain in-the moment foreboding to the chronologically appearing, earlier scenes. It also allows the brilliance of the central performances to shine through. Ronan and Pugh are sensational as Jo and Amy, the latter of which seems more central to Little Women than perhaps she ever has before. The film’s structure means that instead of seeing these characters grow, we see what is essential to them and what has changed about them. Pugh moves with ease through different registers, capturing the childish rashness and delivering the emboldened wit of ten-year-old Amy while also conveying all the simmering emotions of an older, more cynical Amy, seven years later. Pugh, almost twenty-four in real life, plays ten-year-old Amy with such youthful, twitchy vitality that scenes that could easily appear ridiculous, like when she is seen in school surrounded by genuine ten-year old, somehow work, primarily through the conviction of her performance.
Ronan is no less impressive, and much of the pleasures of the film reside in seeing the adolescent wilfulness and fiery spirit of Jo melt and remould itself into something more restrained and vulnerable but nonetheless heartfelt, as the difficulties of life take its toll upon her character. Ronan is an actor who shines when responding to others and one of the film’s highlights comes when Timothée Chamelet’s Laurie proposes to a refusing Jo. In this scene, Ronan bristles and sparks with all the energies of warring emotions that are scarcely understood, attempting to convince him and herself that such a marriage would be catastrophic. Ronan’s Jo is different things at different times, and it is as inspired by Greta Gerwig and Louisa May Alcott themselves as it is Alcott’s character. Watching Ronan and Pugh interact with the likes of Laura Dern and Meryl Streep, it’s hard not to feel a sense that the torch is being passed down from two of the greatest actors of their respective generations onto what will be, if not already are, two of the best actors of their own.
As all great period pieces do, this one feels both era specific and poignantly timely. As much as she clearly loves the source material, Gerwig is unafraid to challenge it or to reconfigure it to allow its feminist subtexts to shine through or even be reimagined in a more contemporary light. The film’s metatextuality slowly emerges throughout and it allows Gerwig, at the film’s conclusion, to both have her cake and eat it, to be both faithful to Alcott’s text and to reimagine it as her own. Ladybird announced Gerwig as one of the most exiting young directors of the 2010s; Little Women confirms her as one of the most brilliant directors working today.