It’s a blessed relief to see “Little Women” out of its corsets, freed from the strictures of 19th-century costumes and settings, and moving around in the modern world just in time for the book’s sesquicentennial — a big-sounding word that Louisa May Alcott’s impulsive heroine Jo would enjoy using in a sentence.
Director Clare Niederpruem, who co-wrote with Kristi Shimek, makes the brave choice to take Alcott’s 150-year-old classic and update it to the 21st century. The details are changed, such as when Marmee (Lea Thompson) is heard on the phone dealing with creditors while her husband, Mr. March (Bart Johnson), is serving as an Army medic in Afghanistan. But the relationships between the four March sisters remain the emotional core.
Jo, played spiritedly by Sarah Davenport, relates her family’s story to her literary professor, Freddy Baer (Ian Bohen), and the movie bounces around the timeline with her. She tells of her sisters — Meg (Melanie Stone), the oldest, who desires home and hearth; Beth (Allie Jennings), who plays piano and has the biggest heart; and Amy (played in turns by Elise Jones and Taylor Murphy), a spunky tagalong — and their many conversations in the attic of their Massachusetts home.
The four each make vows about their future, with Jo’s wish to be a great author and “do all the things” carrying her from home to a life as a struggling writer in New York, a tenant of her Aunt March (Barta Heiner). Meg wants nothing more than to be married and have kids. Amy wishes to be a painter and see the world. And Beth has everything she wants right there in the attic with her sisters.
The four share moments of laughter and heartbreak, big and small, from an argument between Jo and Amy to a prom night during which Meg is rescued from a lecherous date by family friend Laurie (Lucas Grabeel). Laurie becomes an honorary fifth member of the March girls’ Pickwick Club, but his friendship with at least one of the sisters transforms into something deeper.
Niederpruem, in her feature directing debut, squeezes the most out of an indie-film budget and from the gorgeous Utah locations that double for Alcott’s Massachusetts. She focuses tightly on her ensemble of talented young actors, led impressively by Davenport, who encapsulates Jo’s impatience with the world not recognizing her brilliance, and by Jennings, who quietly steals the audience’s heart as the angelic Beth.
Anyone familiar with Alcott’s book or the many film adaptations — George Cukor’s 1933 version with Katharine Hepburn, Mervyn LeRoy’s 1949 remake with June Allyson, and Gillian Armstrong’s beloved 1994 rendition with Winona Ryder are the best known — will recognize how faithfully Niederpruem sticks to the basic story. There’s a lot of love evident for the March sisters and their unshakable bond through bad times and good, and that love makes this modern-day “Little Women” worthy of its name.
- ‘Little Women’
- ★★★ ½
- Where • Area theaters
- When • Opens Friday, Sept. 28
- Rated • PG-13 for some thematic elements and teen drinking
- Running time • 112 minutes