LITTLE WOMEN. Sarah Davenport, Allie Jennings, Lucas Grabeel, Ian Bohen, Lea Thompson. Directed by Clare Niederpruem. 112 minutes. Rated PG (Mild themes and coarse language).
Clare Niederpruem’s present day adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel is a shallow, unappealing movie that mainly serves to emphasise the importance of the original’s period setting.
The story beats from Alcott’s novel remain largely intact in the screenplay, adapted by Niederpruem and Kristi Shimek, albeit with some modern updates and now structured via a series of flashbacks from the perspective of the second eldest March sister, Jo (Sarah Davenport). With their military father (Bart Johnson) on deployment, the four March girls grow up under the watchful eye of their mother Marmee (Lea Thompson). Despite their inexplicable indigence (the movie apparently doesn’t realise that army salaries have changed considerably since the 1800s), the girls have happy childhoods, each plotting how to reach their “castles in the sky”.
These “castles” hold the girls’ hopes and dreams for their futures. The oldest, Meg (Melanie Stone), wants a family of her own and their neighbour’s handsome tutor, Brooke (Stuart Edge), soon catches her eye. Jo, a budding author, wants “to do all the things” (if you like your dialogue subtle, best look elsewhere). Beth (Allie Jennings), a talented pianist, just loves spending time with her family. The youngest, Amy (Elise Jones), is a skilled painter and wants to improve, but is often preoccupied by her latest crush. For most of the film, this dubious honour is held by Laurie (Lucas Grabeel), the grandson of their elderly neighbour Mr. Laurence (Michael Flynn), though Laurie is more interested in Jo, a self-professed tomboy with little desire to settle down into a typical maternal role. Unfortunately, their dreams really haven’t aged well, with Meg and Beth coming across as especially dated.
The present-set portion of the film finds an older Jo as a struggling fantasy author in New York City, refining her manuscript under the watchful (and ultimately amorous) supervision of Professor Bhaer (Ian Bohen). When memories are loosely prompted by Jo’s present, the film jumps back in time to different chapters of the girls’ upbringings. The flashbacks do more harm than good, not least because the same actresses are used to depict characters aged a decade or more apart with no discernible attempt to convey the elapsed time, be it through makeup or a modulation in performance. You never buy any movement of time, leaving their epic and dramatic arcs feeling inert and crammed into an unreasonably short period. The noticeable exception to this rule is Amy, the character recast with older actress Taylor Murphy when she begins her romantic relationship with Laurie. Leaving the younger actress in the role up until said development makes their ardour feel inappropriate, bordering on creepy. The flashbacks also leave the film feeling piecemeal and haphazard, utterly devoid of the source material’s rich sense of life and development.
These complaints aren’t the fault of the leading actresses, who turn in fairly spirited performances, particularly Sarah Davenport in the lead. Davenport displays far more conviction and animation than the “name” cast members she shares her scenes with, like Leah Thompson and Lucas Grabeel. However, the titular women’s big dramatic scenes often land flat without any compelling story to hang them on, with some moments veering towards unintentionally funny, such as Jo’s angry storm out from a hospital after Beth develops leukemia.
This ‘Little Women’ was evidently churned out to coincide with the 150-year anniversary of the book’s release and it’s far from recommended viewing. If you can’t wait until acclaimed writer-director Greta Gerwig’s star-studded, period-set adaptation is released in December, then there are at least three decent cinematic adaptations that you should try to see before settling for this disappointment.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out September 5.
Heritage Films International.