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Modernized Little Women film lacks charm of original story

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/9/2018 (479 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

Such is the case with director/writer Clare Niederpruem’s completely unnecessary take on Little Women. This 2018 adaptation joins a spate of releases commemorating the 150th anniversary of Louisa May Alcott’s American classic, sandwiched between a BBC miniseries and the much buzzed-about Greta Gerwig version that will arrive sometime in 2019.

Niederpruem attempts to put a fresh spin on her 19th-century source material by setting it in the 21st — an entertaining premise weakened by lazy execution. This could have been an interesting retelling. This is more like a saccharine TV movie of the week.

In case you aren’t familiar with the plot, Little Women is a coming-of-age tale about the March sisters — traditional Meg (played by Melanie Stone), headstrong Jo (Sarah Davenport), sweet Beth (Allie Jennings), and self-involved Amy (Elise Jones and Taylor Murphy) — and their mother, whom they affectionately call Marmee (Lea Thompson). But Niederpruem’s update is not so much a modernization of the novel as it is a modernization of the Academy Award-nominated 1994 adaptation, which starred Winona Ryder (at peak Winona Ryder) as Jo. Some parts are nearly scene-for-scene, tweaked just so to fit in a vague present.

Pinnacle Peak Pictures</p><p>Elise Jones (left) as Amy, Melanie Stone as Meg and Allie Jennings as Beth in the latest Little Women adaptation.</p></p>

Pinnacle Peak Pictures

Elise Jones (left) as Amy, Melanie Stone as Meg and Allie Jennings as Beth in the latest Little Women adaptation.

And hoo boy, does this not work. The whole film collapses under its awkward, ham-fisted modernity. Meg might have a Pinterest wedding, and Jo might wear red Converse sneakers and use an iPhone to screen Marmee’s calls, but the too-faithful dialogue makes the March women sound weirdly old-fashioned, as though they are Civil War-era time travellers and the pace of 2018 is giving them the vapours. Shoe-horned references to WebMD and millennial entitlement do not a modern script make.

Some plot points simply don’t lend themselves to a modern retelling, to comedic effect: instead of Jo selling her hair to pay for Marmee’s travel expenses, Jo shaves her head after Beth is diagnosed with leukemia — scarlet fever being too old-timey of an illness, one supposes. She doesn’t do this in chemo solidarity, mind you, but rather to pay for a gumball machine she trashed in the hospital waiting room. The struggle is real.

Uniformly one-note performances flatten the March women into one-dimensional characters. Despite being the only recognizable name, Thompson is given little to work with as Marmee. And Davenport doesn’t play Jo with the nuance she deserves; while Jo is supposed to be ambitious and stubborn, here she just seems spoiled, angry and cruel.

None of the characters have chemistry, which is particularly problematic when it comes to the film’s romantic plotlines; Laurie (Lucas Gabreel), the neighbour boy who carries a torch for Jo and ends up with Amy, seemed more like a platonic BFF.

But perhaps most egregious of all, this film fails the litmus test for any Little Women adaptation: if Beth March’s death doesn’t absolutely destroy the viewer, you did it wrong.

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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