The story begins in a period that so often causes the first real self-reflection in young people’s lives—the first time they move away from the home they grew up in. Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is now a writer living on her own in New York, just as she always wanted. But reality can have a funny way of undercutting those visions that seem so fine and aspirational when you’re still a girl safely tucked up in the restraining arms of your family and community. The actual experience of them is almost always lonelier.
Gerwig takes the conflict at the heart the novel—whether individual or communal pursuits are more worthy—and explores how different answers can be equally valid depending on the personality and giftedness of the girl in question. She takes pains to show that Jo’s decision to strike out after her dreams is no more noble than Meg’s choice to forgo a grand career on the stage in favor of marriage and motherhood.
Some secular critics have asserted that Gerwig is offering a feminist take on the story. I’d hate for anyone to be put off from this wonderful production by such reports. True, Gerwig leans into Alcott’s own life story to explain the decisions of the fiercely independent tomboy Jo. And it’s true that discussions of marriage as commerce are threaded throughout. But these seem more like a shorthand way to highlight the dilemma the low-income March girls face in their era.