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Lost in the 21st Century

Lea Thompson
Lea Thompson
Pure Flix Entertainment
 111 Minutes
Directed by: Clare Niederpruem
Starring: Sarah Davenport, Lea Thompson   
Little Women

Moby Dick is unquestionably one of the greatest works of American literature, and, when he wrote it, Herman Melville set the novel in his present day of 1851. The book’s themes of obsession and the unattainable quest are universal and probably eternal; however, any attempt to recreate the book in a present-day setting for a modern film would probably result in something at best bizarre and at worst a Gerard Butler macho extravaganza. Similarly, Little Women is a product of its time, the immediate post-Civil War era, and the numerous film and TV adaptations of the Louisa May Alcott novel about the four March sisters have been set in that era. Now, however, novice writer/director Clare Niederpruem tries to set her version of the movie in the 21st century, but the result is woefully misguided.


Niederpruem’s film incorporates most of the familiar elements from the Alcott novel. Fortunately, many viewers will be familiar with the plot, for, otherwise, the story might be somewhat confusing. The film begins in the present day, apparently 2018, as aspiring novelist Jo March (Sarah Davenport) gets little encouragement when she submits the fantasy novel she’s been working on for a decade to a panel of rather unimpressed publishers. Her “audition,” which consists of reading the first couple of pages of the book on stage in front of the publisher like an actress auditioning for a part, doesn’t seem like it belongs in either the 21st or the 19th century, but, instead, on a bad reality TV show. The only person who appears somewhat impressed by Jo’s writing is college professor Freddy Bhaer (Ian Bohen), who offers to provide some editing help.


From there, the new version of Little Women alternates between the present day and a series of flashbacks beginning a dozen years earlier and gradually progressing toward the present. In another distracting decision by the filmmakers, although the film follows Jo and her sisters over a period of time in which they age from early teens until mid- to late-20s, Jo and sisters Meg and Beth are played by the same actresses for almost the entire time. Only youngest sister Amy is finally recast when the audience sees her as an adult. While Jo strives to find her authorial voice in the flashbacks, sister Meg (Melanie Stone) decides that she prefers being a traditional wife and mother with John Brooke (Stuart Edge), who happens to be the tutor of the Marches’ next-door neighbor’s grandson Laurie (Lucas Grabeel). Beth (Allie Jennings) tries to keep the peace in the family, at least until she develops cancer (an update from scarlet fever from which Beth suffered in the book). Youngest sister Amy (Taylor Murphy as an adult) loves to paint and is jealous of the attention Laurie shows to Jo.


The somewhat melodramatic plot makes perfect sense when looked at from the timeframe of the late 1860s, but a lot of the storyline seems puzzling or downright silly in the social media era. The March sisters playing elaborate fantasy games in their attic, constructing “make-a-wish” castles and forming a pseudo-military club that borrows heavily from Charles Dickens doesn’t work at all when juxtaposed with scenes such as the one shown below of the girls Skyping their absent father. Nor does it seem very plausible that Jo would write out her entire novel-in-progress in longhand in a notebook just so Amy could toss it in the fire as she did in the novel. And finally, Laurie’s character, charitably put, would seem to have some masculinity issues, as evidenced by his willingness to play dress-up games with the March sisters (also, there hardly seems any need for him to have a tutor who appears only about two years older than him).


The plot of Little Women suffers from an even more fundamental flaw than those just described. Namely, Jo must face the dilemma of choosing between the type of domestic life Meg enjoys and the extremely uncertain prospect of following her literary muse. In 1868, when Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women, this would have been a tough decision for a woman to make; now, Jo’s decision isn’t nearly as daunting. Further, with the avenues available today for an author to get into print (or, at least, digital publication), Jo should have had no trouble getting a feel for the public’s acceptance of her literary efforts.


This version of Little Women was distributed by Pure Flix Entertainment, a faith-based company. I’m guessing that the wholesome nature of the source material (not to mention the fact that the Alcott novel has been in the public domain for decades) made this an attractive project. The film has almost no sexual references other than one kiss Laurie and Jo share that confirms her feelings of “loving him like a brother” and a post-prom party Meg attends where she finds herself in an awkward situation with a drunk. Truth be told, however, the absence of what would probably occupy a great deal of time in most modern-day films about four sisters of that age was less noticeable than the presence of a lot of material that felt completely out of place.


Many of the themes in Little Women are timeless, however, and some of them do translate well to the present day. Beth’s story, which concerns her fragility and mortality, is especially relevant in an era in which young people still find themselves prey to fatal, slow-moving diseases. A final bonding scene between Jo and Beth is probably the best in the movie, one that plays perfectly in the modern day. In fact, the acting ensemble in the film is quite solid, even though, except for Lea Thompson, most are relative unknowns. Thompson’s veteran presence makes her Marmee a more commanding if gentle figure, even in a somewhat underwritten role here.


Ironically, another production of Little Women is currently in production, to be directed by Greta Gerwig and featuring an A-list cast headed by Saoirse Ronan, Meryl Streep, and Emma Watson. I have a gut feeling that the Gerwig movie, even though set in Alcott’s times, will be more meaningful to today’s audiences than the current anachronistic misfire is. By updating the material in the Alcott novel to modern times, the filmmakers here have unwittingly highlighted the areas in which the book is not relevant rather than those where it still is. As a result, despite a decent amount of charm, this version of Little Women is a little movie indeed.

In this clip, the March sisters talk with their father via Webcam.

Read other reviews of Little Women: 

Little Women (2018) on IMDb