Two years since the beginning of the #MeToo movement kick started in earnest in the wake of high profile sexual assault cases in Hollywood, the role of women in film both as leading stars and as filmmakers are both intensely scrutinized. Most of the highest grossing films from this year not only featured men, but were created by men. Only Captain Marvel and Frozen II buck those trends, and even those both featured co-directing teams of a man and a woman, and entire teams of writers of mixed genders. Further, with award season in full swing, it is becoming painfully apparent that even the great films piloted by women are at risk of being left out in the cold.
One of the films leading the charge for the role of women in Hollywood this year is Little Women, the fourth film directed by Greta Gerwig, and the first since 2017’s Lady Bird, which nabbed her first Academy Award nominations. While it is definitely one of the finer films of the year, it is lacking a certain kick-in-the-pants the truly exceptionally films of the year possess.
Little Women is a coming of age story for four young women- all sisters- in a post-Civil War America. The film bounces back and forth through time as much as seven years as we witness the characters from girls to women, and how their childhood antics influenced the kind of people they would end up becoming. This can occasionally be somewhat difficult to distinguish, as for the most par the characters’ past selves are identical to their “current” selves save for a mildly different hair style or two. For this most part, this time difference is conveyed by the color temperature of the lighting, as the memories of their past selves are almost without exception brighter than the current time the film takes place in. This is a minor issue, as the nonlinear structure is what allows for the characteristics of each of our protagonists to stand out without getting dull or repetitive.
The only major aspect of the film which keeps it from reaching that point of becoming exceptional is that it looks fairly ordinary. Gerwig is no doubt a skilled director, but she is not flashy, and she may indeed be a better writer than director (though being one of the best writers going today ain’t to shabby). Direction and cinematography are not the strengths of either Little Women, or her other recently acclaimed film, Lady Bird. Those are films that are driven by great characters and dialogue- Lady Bird was the real best film of 2017, and remains one of the most real and authentic sounding films in years because its writing was so unbelievably good. Though Little Women is not as sharp as Lady Bird, the writing and characters are still fantastic, but this is a year in which very strong images and visions are leading the charge, and Little Women simply comes up short in that department.
As stated above, the strength of this film lies within its writing and characters. Each of the characters feels real and distinct, with each of the titular women having distinct personalities, desires, abilities, and fates that befall them. Though each of them possess some level of artistic talent, each in a different expressive field (music, literature, acting and painting), only one is able to actually realize a career featuring that talent. Jo March, the lead character, is the only of the women able to reach her artistic dream to some degree. Her older sister, Meg, forgoes any artistic pursuits in favor of a more modest dream of settling down and starting a family with a man that she loved. The youngest sister, Amy, drops any aspirations of being a painter, for, in her own words, while she did possess talent, she did not possess genius, and this did not see the point in pursuing a life of painting any further. Beth, the third-born of the sisters, is the only sister not able to make a choice, as that option was taken from her when an illness takes her life at a young age.
The titular characters are each portrayed by some of the strongest acting and writing chops in the industry heading into a new decade.
In a modern setting, this story would play out with each sister in a position to pursue their dreams in some capacity. This, however, is not a modern story, which denies these women opportunities which would have been provided to men. There is one particular exchange between Amy and Laurie which punctuates this fact very clearly, and is positioned as a bit of a thesis statement for this character, if not for the entire film. Amy’s stance on marriage is more in line with their Aunt, Josephine, who is independently wealthy, and is encouraging her nieces to merry into wealth, as it is the only way for a woman to guarantee safety, security and financial well-being for themselves or their family.
Wealth is another recurring theme in the film. The March’s lack of funds is a frequent challenge for the women, and the source of much of the consternation within the film. Meg somewhat laments her financial status with her husband, and states that she is sick of being poor. This is in contrast with a different family, the Hummels. That is a family of seven: one mother and six children who live in a what can only be called a shack in the middle of nowhere. When a bout of scarlet fever hits, is kills three of the children. That family is severely impoverished; the March’s may not be wealthy, but they have more than enough means to get by, and to not struggle with housing or food at any point in the film. Though it is only a brief moment in the film, it is as aspect that stands out- especially with a real world climate which has seen wealth inequality become one of the biggest issues within the U.S. Though only one line, it sticks out like a splinter and comes off a slightly tone deaf.
More complicated and nuanced is the ultimate message of the film. Through most of its run time, there is a message of women needing to fight harder for a life of independence than a man. The aforementioned exchange between Amy and Laurie is the main example of this, but there are many others that either directly compare the challenges that women face versus what a man faces, and there are many more that omit the man from the equation and strictly focus on the steps that must be taken by women to succeed in this time period. Independence is a steady theme of the film that is contradicted by the finale. Jo is the most ardent defender of this position, though she eventually caves to her own loneliness and falls to various romantic gestures near the end of the film before ending up with a man that she loves. None of the surviving women end up supporting just themselves by the end of the film- something that is alluded to in a pseudo-framing device featuring Mr. Dashwood essentially telling Jo that it’s the only way a story can end. It is paradoxical to nearly everything that the film has presented to that point, and examined this way, it makes the conclusion feel weak and tepid.
However, that is not the only way to examine it. Another way (which may well be the intended way) is to read it as each sister being able to choose to marry out of love, and not out of obligation. Meg willingly marries a man who is not wealthy by any means, as that was not important to her. Amy, though marrying into wealth, just as she intended, manages to marry Laurie, who, she did love from the moment she met him. Even Jo’s marriage is to someone she loved. She had proven more than the others that she was more than capable of financially supporting herself, as well as the others to a lesser extent, yet she chose to marry as well. Critically, they were each able to choose a future for themselves, and none of them had to wind up with someone strictly because that person had the wealth to support them.
One final note about the film is a touch of meta narrative that pokes through as the film is winding down. Jo is writing the story of her sisters, and submitting it to her publisher, Mr. Dashwood, who thinks it is boring. He has no interest in publishing it until his three daughters get ahold of the first few chapters, and demand to know what happens to their new favorite characters. Little Women exceeded Sony’s modest expectations for opening weekend, which should go long way towards recouping its projected budget of $40 million. The more interesting statistic involved with this is that its opening weekend audience was 70% female. Despite having some of the best young actors and actresses in the industry, (Saoirse Ronan is the best young American actor, regardless of gender) an acclaimed writer/director, and juicy critical ratings, men still wouldn’t go see it because it’s called, Little Women. It’s the same reason why there is no male equivalent to the chick flick. There are plenty of silly and downright stupid films that are made primarily for teenage boys- there are entire billion- dollar franchises that are nothing but stupid boy films. But when a silly or stupid franchise emerges that is aimed at girls, it is at best ignored, and at worst, attacked. As YouTube savant, Lindsey Ellis puts it, “we kind of hate teenage girls.” While Little Women is not a product directed at teenage girls, it is something that is most directed at women. In spite of any forward steps taken by the industry to get greater representation of women, there is still a long way to go in regards to getting more male representation in the theaters.