Seems fair to call Greta Gerwig’s Little Women exactly that, since Gerwig’s own tart self-sufficiency from Frances Ha and its Mistress America flip side aren’t hard to spot in there, not to mention the deadpan delivery she used in Damsels in Distress while claiming that the twist was popularised by someone named Chubbard Checker. The film is going for modernisation and American authenticity at the same time—and doing it with hard calculation rather than impetuous exuberance, the inevitable bargain if mass-culture is society’s cart rather than its horse. But Gerwig is trying for tenderness too, something hardly any films know what to do with in this, our age of irony.
It also has Florence Pugh, owner of enough exuberance for any three films. Every now and again someone British rocks up who splices the domestic acting tradition with American mechanisms and makes it look like the two schools are cosily compatible, rather than from parallel dimensions. Pugh is today’s designated alchemist and has been ever since she frugs along to that car radio in The Little Drummer Girl, beaming with the joy of just doing the job in the first place—the rarest Anglo Saxon knack of all. She bosses Little Women from the front in her own scenes before doing it again from the background during other people’s. Next May she goes twelve rounds with Scarlett Johansson while wielding a Russian accent that sounds like it could squash a pebble, which might be something between a title bout and a bacchanal.