'Little Women': Film Review
Lea Thompson plays Marmee in the latest screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic, updated to modern times.
We can't seem to get enough of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women even 150 years after its publication. At least, television and the movies can't. Arriving shortly on the heels of the recent BBC miniseries and prior to the upcoming star-studded version directed by Greta Gerwig is this seventh, count 'em, seventh film adaptation of the beloved classic (two of them were silent, but they count nonetheless). What makes the new cinematic rendition directed by Clare Niederpruem distinctive is that it's the first version set in modern times. Unfortunately, the updating does the venerable story few favors, and the lack of star wattage makes this Little Women a dull affair.
The basic story of the four March sisters is preserved in this adaptation scripted by director Niederpruem and Kristi Shimek. Here, aspiring writer Jo (Sarah Davenport) is living in New York City, where she's taken under the wing of a hunky Columbia University professor (a smoldering Ian Bohen) who encourages her writing aspirations. Commenting on one of Jo's stories, he says, "I liked it a lot, actually. But then, I've always been a fan of A Wrinkle in Time."
A series of flashbacks depict the younger versions of the girls living with their mother Marmee (Lea Thompson) while their father (Bart Johnson) serves overseas in the military. Papa March communicates with his family via Skype, giving his daughters mock orders that they attempt to follow to the letter.
Watching the siblings Jo, Meg (Melanie Stone), Beth (Allie Jennings) and Amy (Taylor Murphy) jogging and texting their way through the familiar story, or Jo shaving her head in solidarity when Beth undergoes chemotherapy for leukemia, or when one of them comments, "I'm sick of being the weirdo, home-schooled sisters," just doesn't have the same effect as experiencing Alcott's 19th century naifs come of age. For anyone familiar with the source material or its myriad adaptations, and that's presumably nearly everyone, the modernistic trappings really don't make it any more accessible. And those new to the tale will probably just find it hopelessly old-fashioned with its endless scenes of the characters singing Christmas carols or "Auld Lang Syne." This version is being distributed by Pure Flix Entertainment, specializing in faith-based films, and the relentless sweetness and wholesomeness prove overbearing.
This perhaps wouldn't matter if the performances were galvanizing, but such is not the case. Davenport makes for an enjoyably feisty Jo and Thompson is warmly appealing as the ever-supportive mother, but most of the relatively unknown cast fail to make much of an impression. This is particularly true in the case of Lucas Grabeel's bland Laurie, making the central love relationship uninteresting. Such cherished characters as Aunt March (Barta Heiner) and Mr. Lawrence (Michael Flynn) barely register.
This cinematic update ultimately not so much honors its source material but exploits it. Not in a bad way, mind you, merely an unnecessary one. It may be time to give Little Women a rest for a while. At least, after Greta Gerwig's version. That's something to look forward to.
Production companies: Main Dog Productions, Paulist Productions
Distributors: Pure Flix Entertainment, Pinnacle Peak
Cast: Sarah Davenport, Allie Jennings, Lucas Grabeel, Ian Bohen, Lea Thompson
Director: Clare Niederpruem
Screenwriters: Clare Niederpruem, Kristi Shimek
Producers: Maclain Nelson, Kristi Shimek, Stephen Shimek, David M. Wulf
Executive producers: Chris Donahue, Marybeth Sprows
Director of photography: Anka Malatynska
Production designer: Lauren Spalding
Editor: Kristi Shimek
Composer: Robert Allen Elliott
Costume designer: Emily Jacobson
Casting: Seth Yanklewitz
Rated PG-13, 112 minutes