The time shifts can be jarring as “Little Women” gets underway, and Gerwig front loads the film with not one but three lively dance scenes, each meant to delineate a stratum of 19th century social class. The energy, at least at first, feels scattered and unfocused. But once the movie finds its feet, the characters reveal themselves. Eldest Meg (Emma Watson) wants to be a wife and mother; little Amy (Florence Pugh) an artist. Ethereal Beth (Eliza Scanlen), “the quiet one,” plays the piano beautifully, while Jo furiously writes whatever comes into her head - usually a play that the foursome act out with unbridled theatricality. With their father away at war, the March household is overseen by their nurturing, idealistic mother Marmee (Laura Dern), as well as the more vinegary Aunt March, played with amusing tartness and fed-up side-eye by Meryl Streep.
Attractively designed and filmed and set to a gorgeously lush musical score by Alexandre Desplat, “Little Women” could be seen as the urtext for everything from “Sex and the City” to “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” wherein like Laurie, the audience watches the female protagonists, not as an act of pure observation but of identification and self-definition. Long before viewers debated whether they were a Carrie or a Samantha, women (and surely more than a few men) wondered if they were Jo the tomboy or Meg the romantic. The genius of Gerwig’s version is that it preserves that deep psychological pleasure of “Little Women” while acknowledging that all of those archetypes existed — and still do — within a rigged system.