She did. And so do the Marches, who can never decide if their passions and desires are sacred or sacrilegious. They each have flaws, or at least challenges: Meg is vain, Jo is tactless, Amy is selfish, and Beth is timid. And they each have ambition: Meg wants to run a beautiful home, Jo wants to breathe life into words, Amy wants to be noticed, and Beth wants to give and receive love. They all want to be as good as their mother (Laura Dern), who gives the scarf off her neck to a person in need. Their attempt to be good girls—and then to chafe against that and try to become great women—is so stressful that it’s a relief when Timothee Chalamet shows up as their wealthy, spoiled neighbor, looking as usual like the face a miniaturist would paint on a matchstick, and instantly starts sniffing the girls’ hair. Same with Meryl Streep, who plays the aunt, striding exquisitely into a new career phase as playing Iconic Old Bitches.
If the movie falls a little short of perfection, it does so for the same reasons as the Alcotts and the Marches did—because it reaches for it so hungrily. Every shot looks like an influencer’s Christmas card. Every other line of dialogue (mostly Alcott’s original, peppered with some additions by Gerwig) would be at home an Etsy throw pillow. I don’t mean to diss or diminish Gerwig’s work—Christmas cards are beautiful, and great quotes are put on merchandise for a reason. Louisa May Alcott was radical but this movie is not, and that makes it infinitely comforting. It also helps us understand why there have been seven remakes of a movie about wonderful young women living during chattel slavery.
The exceptionally dreamy cast of actors stride from season to perfectly-captured season, over sandy beaches and snowy fields and leaf-covered hills and rainy cobblestones. Watching them grow and love and experience loss feels like unwrapping a gift and seeing that it’s an album of family photos you had thought were lost. Or at least it did to me, a person who was raised in a family so devoted to Little Women that multiple members of it are named after the characters.
But watching it, I wished the movie’s actors and creators, in their determination to be perfect, could read the words of Mary Oliver, another American woman writer who was influenced by Transcendentalism:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Little Women is devastating and exquisite and a little bit limited. And next time, we hope Meryl and Saoirse do a buddy comedy.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer at Glamour.