What does it mean to take a very old and much-loved book, one that has been adapted (often very well) several times before, and breathe life into it for a new audience, all while preserving the rugged purity of its spirit? That’s what Greta Gerwig does with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a novel that has been passed with love from one generation to the next since its publication in two volumes, in 1868 and 1869. Saoirse Ronan is the teenaged aspiring writer and adventure-seeker Jo March, being raised in a family of women in 1860s New England. Older sister Meg (Emma Watson) is the sensible, conventional one; younger sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen), is the fragile, quiet one; the baby, Amy (Florence Pugh), is a brat who turns into a proper lady, learning about generosity along the way. A watchful mother (Laura Dern) presides over this small society of women, while brainy, spirited neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet, in one of his best performances) introduces some raucous but welcome male chaos. Gerwig orchestrates it all beautifully, showing family life as a peppery whirl of overlapping dialogue (punctuated by the occasional quarrel), and, of course, carving a believable path for her young heroine, a woman who must find her own way in a world where men dictate the rules. Gerwig’s Little Women is proof that there are always new ways to tell old stories, ensuring that they live far beyond our own preoccupations and tastes, never becoming last season’s outmoded gown.

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