Saturday, June 13, 2020

Little Women (2019)

Letters from Father

Science fiction and an end of the world scenario: Contagion, It Comes at Night, 12 Monkeys, or the Walking Dead - like many others curiosity drove my choices of what to watch at the start of this pandemic. A compelling watch but with days upon days of isolation, I couldn't without flipping out. Laying low from negativity such as news, social media, and in my case certain movie genres is indeed good advice. 

Since then the movies or TV series I’ve seen to name a few are: Money Heist, Star Trek the Next Generation, All the President’s Men, and The Last Dance. Actually I am surprised to be relying more YouTube than the movies I have on file. 

Still cautiously avoiding just the one genre, for this week’s entertainment I traveled to a bygone era via a light hearted period piece from the 2020 Oscar Best Picture nominees.

The March sisters looking at the Laurence house

Little Women, the classic Louisa May Alcott’s tale said to be based on author’s own family, has been made and remade at least 10 times, I was old enough to remember only 2 movies that included this latest one. I never saw or read the story, until now.

This movie has put me solidly in Saoirse Ronan’s corner so to speak. She has an Irish accent, however a Filipino ear like mine can be biased for an American tongue because we can understand it better. Hence I have noted her as good but slightly in the exotic territory. 

Saw her first in an appropriately Irish role in the Oscar nominated Brooklyn; Saoirse too got an Oscar nod for that performance. Accent notwithstanding I appreciated the talent then and watching her now as Josephine “Jo” March has raised my admiration to greater heights. Any movie she's on I have to consider seriously now.

Hello, I'm Josephine March, I'm Jo.

The Lead, My North Star


I loved always knowing how Jo March (Saoirse) was feeling, because compared to the story I was lost. I find the flashbacks jarring and the chemistry lacking. Saoirse’s performance pulled me in emotionally so I knew what part of the story I was in. She makes every scene better. 

Saoirse gets an Oscar nod as Jo March; she has 4 total, but that’s slightly another story.


I was not faultless getting confused with the story. My mistake was leaving Facebook on that first time and messages kept pinging more than I wanted. Still I kept it on, answered a few, thinking nothing would knock my concentration. 

It’s just that the timeline jumping past to present, as well as perhaps other pandemic related stresses of today, I got lost and confused. I watched again with great care and my understanding improved. 

Also, writing this blog has lead me to watch the movie twice, and a few percentage points more because I repeat a few scenes; the movie ages well upon repeats. Still, the flashbacks is not sinking as well. 

They’re not as messy as my complaining makes it sound. A theme connects the flashbacks as it cuts from past to present and vice versa. For example, the first jump to the past; Jo March was dancing in a bar full of immigrants which includes Friedrich Bhaer. 

A dance scene before the first flashback

Jo prepping Meg's hair before a dance

She looked openly enamored with the man, hinting that I should look out for the coming romance - but wait, hold that thought! The scene cuts into the past with the March sisters, in which the two eldest, Meg (Emma Watson) and Jo, are in fixing themselves up to attend a dance that introduced them to Theodore  “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Chalamet).

By design the flashbacks are the primary source of tension because going to the past that no longer exists always involves some pain.  Jo misses her sisters and it gets uncovered each jump, layer by layer. 

You know I was so obsessed – or annoyed – with those flashbacks that I downloaded and watched the 1994 Little Women. Those flashbacks are effective in giving the story added flavor.

Signposts to mark the passage of Time

If not the flashbacks then I my real problem is the production design, maybe the cinematography as well. I think the filmmakers here went for a different color palate between past and present but it was too subtle that I failed to take detailed notice of it, if it was done at all.

Anyone who is unfamiliar with 19th century clothing between adult and children, beautiful and accurate as they are, will find it difficult to distinguish between past and present. Since by reflex I was only focused on lines and character, I thought they were just home clothes and going-out clothes.

Case in point the first time I watched this movie, distracted as I was, I missed one frame, just one: the shot of Jo’s window with a New York skyline. That window came after a prior scene of Jo writing in her old house, also an attic, also with a window. 


Missing that one frame dislodged me so bad that I thought that from the start of the movie to the point that Friedrich gave a set of Shakespeare books was one timeline, and that Friedrich and Laurie where rivals for Jo’s heart.

The callback with the burnt dress which Jo told Laurie reinforced my one timeline idea. One reason is that I forgot a text that said ‘7 years ago’. She can’t afford new clothes, I thought, so she wore the same one Friedrich caught burning, of course the hair at the back of my neck was standing and asking was that the same dress. 

Writing in the most dangerous part of the room

Upon proper understanding I learned that the burnt clothes are an ingenious way to illustrate that Josephine March is a writer. She writes every opportunity she gets, sometimes carelessly staying close to the best source of light, the fireplace.

Character hairstyles, usually Jo’s, can distinguish past and present, but again my first thought was home hair or going-out hair. The best use of hair was in 1994’s Little Women, albeit in a man, when Christian Bale’s Laurie carried a mustache in the older years.

An older Laurie looking fondly at Amy March

The young Laurie looking at Jo March offscreen

Compare that to Timothée Chalamet’s boyish good looks unhampered even by what should be the passage of time. To be fair I wouldn’t know how to put a mustache to that face and not make it laughable. Also, was Chalamet’s Laurie wearing mature clothes signifying age or as a man of wealth he’s just on a buying spree? Again the home and going-out purposes comes to mind. 

Is the past timeline advancing faster than the present timeline? Kirsten Dunst was hired to play a young Amy March in 1994 and Samantha Mathis came in for older Amy. You can't get anymore straight forward than that, change of actress therefore time has passed

Little Amy March, with pigtails, practicing her painting

In the current movie, I would need to pay extra attention if Florence Pugh sports a pigtail or not, be familiar with what she wears, in order to denote age. I lately realized she plays a fellow assassin in Marvel's Black Widow so yes more distinct sign posts would have helped.



To express my feelings of chemistry in short, I believe the 1994 was better in terms of physicality and chemistry, however, today’s version worked with a better script and is better acted.

Timothée Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan’s chemistry is perfect. I was always in the moment watching the best friends play. The friendzone felt so tangible in that rejection scene, which opens up to Friedrich (Louis Garrel). 

Louis is the natural recipient of that perfect chemistry, his few lines, his screen time of maybe less than 5 mins; I can see him marrying Jo. As for the rest of the cast I can’t say for sure if I feel that they were a bad mix for Saoirse or was I way too distracted in their former movie roles. 

Emma Watson as Meg is a good match as the closest sister to Jo, but a bad match in the sense that I can’t imagine Emma as older than Saoirse. To my surprise, I looked it up, Emma is older. Was I reminded too much of Hermione Granger?

Florence Pugh as Amy sounded the most American to me (no, she’s English), which worked so to speak that it increases her “distance” to Meg and Jo. Up until watching the 1994 version I always thought she was just being bitchy and I didn’t think she was going for the youngest sister dynamic – I thought Beth was the youngest. 

In mourning clothes for Beth

Furthermore, Florence and Timothée don’t look good together but this comes more from not casting properly for age. My thought was how can Laurie love Amy when she hasn’t changed, but if there had been a child actress then it’s more Laurie matured and Amy blossomed which is why they marry.

Eliza Scanlen is a capable Beth March but she is underused, or you can say she didn’t have the charisma to get out the shadow of the three other sisters. Greater exposure for Beth highlights the loss when she dies. 

I can only remember Beth saying goodbye to Jo: “It’s like the tide going can’t be stopped.” It was the best line of the movie accentuated by Saoirse’s delivery: “I’ll stop it.” The dramatic pause followed by that wind and the sisters looking small at the blowing sands of time. Now that’s a shot.

Continue writing even if I'm gone

Chris Cooper and Laura Dern are great actors, both American, and Little Women is an American story after all. But I guess I have watched too many movies that I can never get it out of my mind that they are alone when compared to the March sisters and Laurie. 

Well, Timothée Chalamet is American but having perfectly performed a king of England he is a better match for the sisters than the two will ever be.

Laurie's gift upon being accepted to the all-girls club

What the Story Means

Little Women is about women empowerment which can easily be derived from the movie’s book-ends. The first scene starts with Jo March walking up timidly to the book publisher for approval. Keep in mind that Mr. Dashwood (Book Publisher) kept his feet on the table even with a guest present. 

Each March sister is a force of talent and all throughout the movie they fight the stereotype that relegates women to just one corner. The culmination of the struggle is Jo, last seen eyeball to eyeball with the publisher, dictating terms for her book.


Little Women despite being a period piece also has something to say about this pandemic, about the life in quarantine. 

And that starts with the fact that Beth March would have survived with today’s medicine. Young Amy had to be sent away as precaution. What if a family doesn’t have a house nearby? Life is hard without medicines, then and now.

I find it amusing that everyone reads. This refers to the scene at Mr. Dashwood’s home. His 3 daughters, who looked well fed denoting wealth, were up and rowdy about Jo March’s unfinished manuscript. Back then if you want to be entertained get a book; today, money buys a means to watch YouTube, other social media, maybe a video game. Reading is as natural as breathing.

Asking book publisher father about Jo March's manuscript

There are more than 50 books in my possession, here with me in this quarantine, and I’ve managed only to inch a few pages, not nearly every day, on just one book. It feels so long ago when reading was natural.

I was nostalgic at the theatricals that the March sisters do. Not because I am into the art with which they design the stage or the beauty of their performance; I’m drawn to it because it meant that imagination was enough. Perhaps they read something new in a book or a magazine, last week or last month, and in the dry periods they run with it using only their imagination.

As a child I used to imagine being on side missions to what is the blockbuster movie of the day. Nowadays everyone is being spoon-fed by Netflix hours upon hours. If internet disconnects then people would be dead in the water.


Finally, the most endearing part to watch: Jo March, the writer, in an era without computers. 

It reminds me of the time I had to do my assignments on a typewriter, with drafts written by hand. Why do I feel like I had an easier time getting my ideas on paper, barely remembering, if at all, any cross marks and erasures on my drafts? With MS Word I could type in an entire paragraph and delete again easily in annoyance, until my small writing project becomes writer’s block.

I have all the instruments I need, not the barest as I've seen Jo use, and I still am not as prolific as I hoped. She is just fun to watch. The calligraphy shots are  so hypnotic that I mourn for my handwriting. 


What does it feel like to write a book in candle light using a dip pen you have to dip in ink every few words? How well off should you be to get into the hobby - pens, inks, paper, maybe candles?

I almost found myself laughing as Jo March laid out the pages as if they are pictures you can switch around. Does it really work like that? If there’s a bad part in the middle, do you just cross them out and write over, or redo all the pages for a clean copy?

Finally when I said Saoirse accentuates every scene, what I meant is I love her playing Jo March the writer - and the movie along with her. I enjoyed imagining myself being in a similar life. The ink-stained hands; the need to note down all the time; having weird ideas and the isolation because of it; the sadness of toning down one’s only mode of expression just to get approval.


When she was published and is finally heard and read as she is, I felt it. I was with her all the way.

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