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Film review: 'Little Women' 

Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Eliza Scanlen in "Little Women."

PHOTO COURTESY SONY PICTURES

Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Eliza Scanlen in "Little Women."

Greta Gerwig breathes new life into a much-loved story with her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's timeless 19th-century classic, "Little Women." Gerwig's film distinguishes itself from countless iterations of the novel with a work that delivers a supremely faithful adaptation while also offering a fresh, creative perspective on the material.

An affectionate tale of "domestic struggles and joys," the story follows the headstrong March sisters: Jo (Saoirse Ronan), stubborn Amy (Florence Pugh), doting big sister Meg (Emma Watson), and shy, musically-inclined Beth (Eliza Scanlen) as they come of age in America during and after the Civil War.

The girls are raised by their loving mother (Laura Dern) while their father (Bob Odenkirk, an unexpected but somehow perfect choice) is off fighting for the Union Army. We follow along as the young women move from the relatively carefree days of childhood to the more adult concerns of romance, career, marriage, and death as they search for independence and happiness in their own lives.

The biggest deviation from the source material comes in Gerwig's decision to restructure the novel, jumping back and forth in time as we alternate between the golden glow of the past and rather starker present. It's a decision that completely changes the feel of Gerwig's adaptation.

The restructuring serves a practical purpose, introducing important characters and relationships much earlier in the narrative so we form a more emotional attachment to them before they'd have otherwise made their appearance later on. This alteration most directly benefits the character of Professor Bhaer (a charismatic Louis Garrel). Jo's harshest — but most honest — critic, he becomes a crucial presence in Jo's story.

Jumbling the timeline also creates an additional emotional resonance by directly juxtaposing the girls' youthful experiences with the similar but weightier concerns of adulthood. In this way, the two sections of the novel feel more in conversation with one another.

Gerwig's changes also benefit Amy's character. She's the sister who goes through the most radical changes throughout the story, to the extent that the role is sometimes played by two different actresses in other adaptations. Here Amy is played solely by Florence Pugh, who continues to demonstrate her incredible versatility. Even if she doesn't exactly pass for a twelve-year-old, we easily believe she's aged years between the two timelines the film presents.

Her Amy is both maddening and loveable, completing the actress' trifecta of excellent performances in 2019 (along with the horror film "Midsommar" and professional wrestler in comedy "Fighting with My Family")

The script more completely centers Jo's career pursuits as a writer, and in the third act Gerwig draws in elements of Alcott's own life, making Jo a more obvious stand-in for the author herself. As Jo deals with issues of authorship and artistic compromise, the small alterations turn this version of "Little Women" into a wonderful movie about the process of writing.

The film grows into a love story between a young woman and her creative pursuits, and I loved the sight of Jo sitting on the floor with her written out pages laid out in front of her, arranging and rearranging the structure to figure out what works best for the story she wants to tell. We sense Gerwig's personal connection to the material coming through every moment. The love she feels for these characters helps makes this "Little Women" feel vibrantly, messily, and beautifully alive.

Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to becca@rochester-citynews.com.

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