This is one of my all-time favorite movies and I love to watch it every year around Christmas. Though it spans many seasons and years, one of the best segments takes place at Christmas, and seeing the March house covered in snow is absolutely beautiful. I admit that my fondness for this film is colored with nostalgia, since I’ve loved it for as long as I can remember, but it’s a warm, beautifully acted delight in its own right. It’s one of those films that just lets its characters live and discover themselves through love, death, creative growth, birth, and all the little everyday experiences that shape who we are. The emphasis is on family and sisterhood, understandably because the March family is made up of four sisters (Amy, Jo, Beth, and Meg) and their mother, Marmee, while their father is away fighting in the Civil War. One of the things that really draws me to this type of the movie is the yearning for a simpler life. While all these girls face trials and hardships and social prejudices, they have the room to flourish and refine themselves without all the stress and pressure of life today. Their relationships – familial, platonic, and romantic alike – can develop naturally and at a slow, steady pace. The film itself has this kind of pace, carefully letting us get to know each of the sisters and their individual personalities. The focus of the film is Jo, played by Winona Ryder, a hotheaded, passionate young writer who needs to break away from home and see more of the world in order to become the woman and the artist she needs to be.
Growing up, I never understood why Jo turns down her best male friend, Teddy’s, marriage proposal. For one thing, Teddy, as played by Christian Bale, is about the most perfect boy I could imagine. The two have wonderful chemistry and he’s incredibly charming and kind to her. But now I understand her need to leave that life behind and seek out new experiences elsewhere, no matter how much she loves her life in Concord. Jo is a character that I can almost painfully relate to. Her feelings of inadequacy and her yearning to be recognized for her talent strike a real chord within me. “In my family, there’s much of an emphasis on perfecting one’s self. I’m hopelessly flawed,” she says to her eventual lover, a German philosophy professor who provides her sexual awakening and opens her eyes to her own potential. Each of the characters is flawed, yet they have incredible moral fiber and courage. Marmee is a beacon of virtue, insisting that her daughters be educated, cultured, and self-respecting. It borders on unrealistic at times, but I also think it’s the kind of film young women need. It carries the message that a woman’s real worth is not in her beauty or her charm, but in her imagination, her intellect, her charity, and her expressions of love and creativity.
Little Women could be said to have a rather feminist bent, but it treats its male characters with equal respect. One thing I always found curious, though, is how the father is all but absent. He survives the war and comes home but disappears from the story after that. The other male characters are given a lot of room to assert their personalities and Teddy especially is given just as much attention as any of the sisters. It’s rather odd, then, that the father has no say in any of the life-changing events that occur after his return, and I just don’t see any explanation for it. My only other quibble would be the actress who plays Amy in the last third of the film, Samantha Mathis. Kirsten Dunst is fiesty and fantastic as young Amy, and the older version doesn’t even seem to be playing the same character. All the attitude is gone, and she’s stiff, not fitting in with the rest of the cast, looking beautiful and boring. It’s a shame because the rest of the cast is amazing and really feels like a family that has known each other forever.
This is quite a lovely film as well. It evokes Civil War-era Massachusetts with warmth and detail, paying attention to the changing of the seasons, and the lovely natural lighting. Colleen Atwood is one of my favorite costume designers and her work here is refined and subtly beautiful. Thomas Newman’s musical score is very underrated, but has become iconic to me over time. This film is all about the performances though, which bring the many characters to sparkling life, and draw you in to watch their lives unfold. A true gem.