First, let's address the misconception that seems to be all over: there haven't been "so many" film adaptations of Louisa May Alcott's beloved 1868 novel Little Women. In the 92 years of sound cinema, there have been three: the one directed by George Cukor in 1933, the one directed by Mervyn LeRoy in 1949, and the one directed by Gillian Armstrong in 1994 (there was also a version directed by Clare Niederpruem in 2018, but it doesn't count: it was a modern-day retelling and only like a dozen people saw it). Two Little Womens in 70 years doesn't seem like an overbearing amount, for a book with such an enormous reputation and multi-generational fanbase. We've had, like, thirteen Les Misérableses in the same span, including two different concert versions of the stage musical.

So writer-director Greta Gerwig's new adaptation doesn't really need to do anything flashy and complicated to justify itself, and I am wholly sorry to report that it does so anyway. Taken strictly at the level of what happens in the story, this is a perfectly normal, faithful adaptation of the book, until an ending that I found a bit bloated, tonally off-kilter, and dumb, to be honest, but that's neither here nor there. However, for reasons that do actually seem to have a clear motivation, Gerwig has split the plot into two parts ("The Late 1860s" and "The Early and Middle 1860s"), and cross-cuts between them. The purpose of this, I imagine, is to show how events echo across time (the ample use of graphic matches to leap across the gulf of years bears this out), and how memories are triggered by present moments, but in practice it just makes things sloppy and unfocused, and rather harder to follow than such a small, interior-minded story ought to be (only a fairly blunt cinematography trick - the past is gold, the present is blue - makes it manageable). It also muddies the book's central theme, the importance of familial connections and group bonds, by presenting the four sisters of the title as isolated individuals long before we ever see them as one happy cluster of siblinghood (given the aforementioned new ending, a paean to individualism, it would not appear that Gerwig and I read the books themes the same way, at any rate).

Getting past that - and it is very much the film's greatest flaw, maybe even the only one that's more than a minor annoyance - what we have is a very satisfying Little Women altogether. It lacks the liveliness and world-beating Katharine Hepburn performance of the 1933 film, or the opulent warmth,  precise setting, and lived-in quality of the 1994 film, but where it thrives is in giving a full, vigorous personality to three of the four sisters, rather than just focusing on aspiring writer and tomboy Jo March (played in this occasion by Saoirse Ronan). She's still the stand-out; indeed, given the new film's substantial reframing as the story of how a novel comes to be written, she is perhaps more of a conventional protagonist. But Gerwig still spends plenty of time attending to the moods and dreams and personal moments of eldest sister Meg (Emma Watson), the mature romantic with a love of quiet domesticity, and youngest sister Amy (Florence Pugh), the artistic firebrand who easily steals the show in this go-round, in part because of the giddy spectacle of seeing Pugh try with all her might to convincingly play a 12-year-old and failing magnificently. As always, poor Beth is just Beth, the one who gets sick, and oh right, doesn't she play piano, or something? And it doesn't help that she's played by Eliza Scanlen, far and away the most unfamiliar major cast member (though I doubt that anybody would have known, during casting, how effectively Pugh was going to use 2018 and 2019 to make herself famous in a hurry).

The heart and soul of this story is and has always been the camaraderie and easy flow of energy between the March sisters, and this is something that this Little Women has an ample supply of; it's a film in which every scene feels like it ends with a gale of laughter, loud conversation, human pile, or some other example of four people blending together (this is another part of the reason I don't care for the cross-cutting; it keeps diluting the impact of all the togetherness). Gerwig and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux turn the rooms of the March house into cozy shadowboxes to stage the four little women in organic, messy tableaux, even throwing in the occasional deep composition to let us see how they're involved with the other characters. It's not an especially complex or dazzling stylistic program, and this is not remotely a test of Le Saux's extremely well-honed skillset (he has, just in the last five years, shot A Bigger Splash for Luca Guadagnino, High Life for Clair Denis, and four different films for Olivier Assayas). But it's the right approach for the comforting interiors and human-scaled intimacy of this story, and it's a major step forward for Gerwig after the visually anonymous indie movie stock images of Lady Bird.

Beyond the four sisters, the film has some missteps here and there in building its characters. Laura Dern, playing the girls' mother, gives one of the very small number of her performances that I have flat-out disliked, failing completely to adjust her very modern speaking voice and bearing to play a woman from the 1860s (and a woman whose children all have studious Mid-Atlantic accents, at that); Timothée Chalamet, the heroin chic It Boy of the moment, is even worse at the same task as the ebullient boy next door "Laurie" Laurence. But Meryl Streep is having a grand time camping it up as the unpleasant Aunt Match, and Chris Cooper is terrific, heartbreaking, and kindly in the entirely thankless role of Laurie's grandfather. So if it doesn't quite balance out (Dern and Chalamet have the biggest non-sister role in the film), it's at least heavily compensated.

At any rate, the film is very earnest, comes from an extremely obvious place of love for the material and the characters, and it's extremely nice. Notwithstanding the enthusiasm of the moment, I have an extremely difficult time imagining that it will permanently replace the 1994 film in the cultural consciousness, but it doesn't have to in order to be a sweet end-of-year treat, something wholly pleasant and humane to round out a movie year where humanity, in particular, hasn't always been easy to come by.

For a considerably more charitable take on the film's ending, check out Catharine's blog post