“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” That’s the first sentence of “Little Women,” and I’m happy to say that in this gloomy holiday season — when so much of humanity has earned Krampus or coal — the new movie version of Louisa May Alcott’s novel comes as an absolute gift.

A whole stocking full, really. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, this “Little Women” — the latest of many adaptations — embraces its source material with eager enthusiasm rather than timid reverence. It is faithful enough to satisfy the book’s passionate devotees, who will recognize the work of a kindred spirit, while standing on its own as an independent and inventive piece of contemporary popular culture. Without resorting to self-conscious anachronism or fussy antiquarianism, Gerwig has fashioned a story that feels at once entirely true to its 19th-century origins and utterly modern.

Some of that freshness comes from the cast, a cornucopia of effervescent young talent ballasted by a handful of doughty old-timers. There is also an exuberance — an appetite for clothes, books, baked goods and adventure — that effortlessly links then to now. At the center of the hullabaloo, as she was in Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” is Saoirse Ronan. She plays Jo March, the second oldest of four sisters living in Concord, Mass., during and after the Civil War.

The foursome varies by temperament and talent, inviting a mix-and-match game of identification and infatuation. The oldest, Meg (Emma Watson) is theatrical and responsible; Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is musical and sweet. The youngest sister, Amy (Florence Pugh), and Jo are a painter and a writer who are frequently at odds. Before romance, tragedy and the ordinary pains of growing up complicate matters, they are an inseparable if not always harmonious troupe. Jo writes the plays that the rest of them perform for an audience that includes various toys, their mother (Laura Dern) and Hannah (Jayne Houdyshell), the housekeeper.

But the sisters live mainly to delight (and sometimes to torment) one another. The spectacle of their natural, affectionate, clamorous intimacy is a joy to behold, one we occasionally glimpse through the amused eyes of potential suitors, fond neighbors and a prodigiously judgmental and very wealthy aunt played by Meryl Streep. The girls’ nonjudgmental, non-wealthy father is played by Bob Odenkirk.

Rather than starting where Alcott does, during an austere wartime Christmas, Gerwig introduces us to Jo seven years later, an ink-stained scribbler paying a visit to a New York publisher (Tracy Letts). The rest of “Little Women” zigzags between two periods in the lives of Jo and her family. Whereas Alcott traces their fates in a straight line, Gerwig (aided by the deft editing of Nick Houy and the musical stitching of Alexandre Desplat’s score) proceeds by association and recollection. It’s as if the book has been carefully cut apart and reassembled, its signatures sewn back together in an order that produces sparks of surprise and occasional bouts of pleasurable dizziness.





‘Little Women’ | Anatomy of a Scene

Greta Gerwig narrates a scene from “Little Women,” featuring Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet.

“I’m Greta Gerwig, and I directed and wrote the screenplay for ‘Little Women.’” “Jo, would you like to dance with me?” “So this is “Laurie” Lawrence and Jo March. And they’re hiding in a back room at a party, and they’re talking about maybe trying to dance. And obviously, this is Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet, who I adore.” “You can laugh if you want to. It’s funny, I know.” “I have an idea of how we manage.” “And then they dance. Well, they’re going to dance outside. And it’s the book that Laurie and Jo dance wildly, they say. But I was looking for a hallway while we were scouting. Because it’s in a hallway in the book. And I wanted a long hallway, and I had this idea for how it would look. But I couldn’t find one. And then I just kept coming back to this location because I liked it. And then I came back at night, and I thought, oh, you could see the dancers through the window, and then see them outside as these figures having their little party on the porch. And my choreographer, who’s very wonderful, Monica Bill Barnes— she created this dance with Saoirse and Timothée. And I wanted it to feel both totally modern and period accurate, in terms of I didn’t want them to be doing dances that they wouldn’t necessarily know. But I did want to feel joyful and young, like kids dance. And this is part of the story that takes place in their childhood, obviously. And it has this very snow globe quality. I wanted everything to feel very shimmery and very beautiful. And we shot with a certain filter to give it that feeling. And it has this warmth. We called it this golden glow that we were going for. And every part of it looks like a painting, but also an ornament. And this is, of course, Laura Dern as Marmee. And this is the first time you’re really inside the March house, looking at it through Laurie’s eyes, and seeing this kind of glorious female utopia. And the actors— I wanted them all to be speaking over each other, which took a lot of coordination, a lot of rehearsal to get this choreographed chaos going.” “I enjoy baking in the middle of the night. And don’t mind the clutter, Mr. Lawrence, we don’t.” “Laurie, please.” “But I just wanted it to be this cacophony of words and sounds, and everybody’s doing something, and there’s all these little moments. I looked at a lot of Altman thinking about it. Because he always has a way of creating spaces with lots of people and lots of activity. And I thought one of the beautiful things about ‘Little Women’ is the way the male characters hold the space for who women are without a spectator. And he’s looking at them, but they’re existing naturally, and he loves them because of who they are. And I think Timothée does such a beautiful job, and these girls are so wonderfully loud. And then this kind of position of this magical house that looks like a little mushroom coming out of the ground, but inside it’s like a jewel box when you open it up.”

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Greta Gerwig narrates a scene from “Little Women,” featuring Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet.CreditCredit…Wilson Webb/Columbia Pictures

This chronological shuffling jolts the story awake and nudges the viewer to pay close attention. Like any good novelist and every great filmmaker, Gerwig isn’t afraid to let her audience work a little. She trusts our intelligence and our curiosity, and also her own command of the medium. Reshuffling the plot is a way of making “Little Women” more cinematic without resorting to tricks or gimmicks.

As much as “The Irishman” or “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” this is a film that tackles the mysteries of time. In Gerwig’s hands, the specific magic of the medium — its ability to reorder the sequence of events, to slow down and speed up, to project memory ahead of experience — becomes a tool of philosophical and emotional inquiry. We observe the March sisters becoming who we have always known them to be, and also figuring out, for themselves, who they are.

Their simultaneous comings-of-age take place amid the constraints and opportunities of their time, place, class and gender. The publisher who buys Jo’s sensational tales instructs her that women in fiction must wind up either married or dead, and “Little Women” the movie obeys that imperative, though not in quite the same way that “Little Women” the novel does. Romance arrives in the person of young Teddy Laurence (Timothée Chalamet), the slightly dissolute grandson of a wealthy Concord widower (Chris Cooper). Laurie, as Jo calls him, seems at times more like a fifth March sister or an untrained puppy than like boyfriend material. He can’t even sit properly in a chair!

Meg, by consensus the prettiest of the four, falls for Laurie’s tutor (James Norton), which means that her wedding vow is also a vow of poverty. The more practical-minded Amy, counseled by Aunt March, grasps the economic implications of marriage. Jo, who catches the eye of both Laurie and a certain Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel), might prefer not to marry at all. The question of freedom — in particular of a woman’s independence in a society that is both liberal and governed by tradition — is threaded through nearly every scene.

“I’ve been angry every day of my life,” Mrs. March says matter-of-factly, and while “Little Women” is full of silliness and sorrow, sweetness and warmth, it doesn’t minimize or apologize for that anger. Nor does it mock or marginalize the March family’s commitment to social justice, civic responsibility and artistic excellence. All of those were, for Alcott, part of the mainstream of American culture. Gerwig knows that they still are.

And so is this kind of entertainment: generous, sincere, full of critical intelligence and honest sentiment, self-aware without the slightest hint of cynicism, grounded in the particulars of life and accessible to everyone. Don’t let the diminutive title fool you. “Little Women” is major. It seems fitting to finish with Alcott’s last sentence: “I can never wish you a greater happiness than this!”

Little Women

Rated PG. Domestic struggles. Running time: 2 hours 14 minutes.