When characters cry on screen, but the audience doesn’t cry in their seats, there’s a problem. Unfortunately, it’s not the only problem in director Clare Niederpruem’s “Little Women.” This contemporary adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s enduring classic is certainly admirable in its attempt to give the material a modern spin. However, what’s new only serves to frustrate and detract from the reasons why this material has been beloved for generations.
Niederpruem, along with co-writer (and editor) Kristi Shimek, updates Alcott’s source material with an unnecessary framing device in which present-day twentysomething Jo March (Sarah Davenport) is attempting to make her mark by writing an unforgettable novel. Can you guess what that novel will eventually be?
Jo was once a young girl yearning to “do all the things” (her words, which are echoed in the end-credits song), such as travel the world and be a playwright. Now, she’s just a frustrated fantasy-fiction writer, stuck in Queens, dog-sitting for her aunt (Barta Heiner). Jo’s plucky spirit and determination catch the eye of professor Freddy Bhaer (Ian Bohen), who gives her feedback on her current work, lamenting that it just doesn’t feel authentic. Though she’s frustrated by that note, the precious memories of her childhood come flooding back, starting to put Jo’s life into perspective when she receives a distressing call from stoic family matriarch Marmee (Lea Thompson) compelling her to return home.
Flashbacks wash over Jo in inconsistent intervals as she recalls her youth with her now-semi-estranged sisters: bashful Meg (played as a teen and young adult by Melanie Stone), sad-sack sage Beth (played primarily by Allie Jennings), and outgoing Amy (played in younger years by Elise Jones, and in older years by Taylor Murphy). She also remembers the men in her life, including boy-next-door Laurie (Lucas Grabeel), his “manny” Brooke (Stuart Edge), and her enlisted father Papa March (Bart Johnson), back and forth from military service. These are the segments where Niederpruem and Shimek pull inspiration from Alcott’s novel, recreating such iconic passages as Amy’s spiteful burning of Jo’s handwritten manuscript, meetings of the March sisters’ secret “Pickwick Club,” and Beth’s platonic interactions with wealthy Mr. Lawrence (Michael Flynn).
The main issue is that the erratic flashbacks completely cut off any emotional momentum, each one clumsily cued by a flashing light and “whoosh” sound effect. Some flashbacks occur randomly in the middle of a scene with nothing to motivate the memory. Plus the way they are demarcated varies as the story progresses: At first, Jo’s memories are non-linear and not tied to a specific time, but later, onscreen titles indicate when they are taking place. Such inconsistencies take us out of the story right when we should be drawn in deeper.
Also, we never get a clear understanding of the family’s financial troubles. There’s a passing mention of receiving one gift at Christmas, and an overheard conversation as Marmee deals with a debt collector, but they’re muted moments. Meg nearly has to wear her grandmother’s hand-me-down dress for prom, which would seem to indicate poverty, but it looks like it came from Kate Spade.
The supporting characters all have moments that technically qualify as character development, but they feel noticeably underwritten compared to Jo. Beth’s segment is rushed through, allowing no time to form an emotional attachment, so when the big tear-jerking moment hits (the one that made Joey on “Friends” put the book in the freezer because he was so upset), audiences’ eyes are as dry as the Sahara. Marmee, Amy, and Meg are also given short shrift, and come across as barely one-dimensional.
Despite the stultifying screenplay, Niederpruem’s direction of her actors is noteworthy. She’s fully capable of orchestrating and modulating the emotional tones of the individual sequences — at least until composer Robert Allen Elliott’s pushy, overbearingly sentimental score barges in. Davenport is magnetic and charismatic, oozing endearing charm. Her likeable spunk and sweet warmth almost make it excusable that the framing device was built around her. Not quite, but almost. No other performance here holds a candle to hers, which goes a long way to brighten the film’s more lackluster elements.
On the visual side, Niederpruem and production designer Lauren Spalding make the world of the sisters feel intimate, immersive, and whimsical. The attic retreat, where club meetings are held and rules are upheld, is lavishly decorated with white twinkle lights that subtly emphasize the insular nature of their imaginative playtime. It’s a girly hideaway in which they can escape real-world problems, which are modernized here as peer pressure to drink alcohol, dress promiscuously, and make out with boys.
This wholesome, Hallmark Channel-adjacent version of Alcott’s time-honored tale about the unshakable bond of sisterhood probably won’t be anyone’s preferred iteration. The updated setting might make it more relatable to today’s teens, but the unnecessarily disjointed structure blunts any emotional impact. As an odd footnote, Niederpruem and Shimek’s characters inhabit a world in which much-discussed author Madeleine L’Engle exists, but Alcott does not. Or maybe she does, and Jo will be slapped with a plagiarism lawsuit.