The boldest decision Gerwig made was to jumble the timeline. Rather than meeting the March girls as children, we are introduced to them as young adults. In the opening scenes, Saoirse Ronan's Jo is working at a boarding house and pursuing her dreams of becoming a published writer in New York, while Florence Pugh's Amy is off in Paris with the domineering Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Don't worry: Gerwig eventually hops back in time the foursome's more youthful days with their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) in Concord, Massachusetts while their father is away fighting in the Civil War.
Yes, all of the memorable vignettes are there, including the visits to the poor Hummel family and Amy's schoolgirl obsession with pickled limes. Jo's first dance with Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) is executed with such ebullience that it's heart-swelling. But in jumping back and forth, Gerwig not only energizes the narrative, but is also able to paint a broader and deeper picture of her characters, who are no longer solely defined by their childish actions. The director lingers on moments that burrow into the girls' souls, whether it's Meg's (Emma Watson) getting tipsy or Beth's (Eliza Scanlen) excitement over the prospect of a piano.
And while Gerwig's structure provides the foundation for this character development, it's the performances of her cast that make it palpable. Ronan's impressive career seemed to reach a new high as Gerwig's stand-in in Lady Bird, and she's once again brimming with intelligence and determination as another author's avatar in Jo. (It doesn't hurt that Gerwig has added some of Alcott's own history to Jo's in this telling.) Ronan has an undeniable rapport with her Lady Bird castmate Chalamet, who gives a performance that's going to be the subject of intense adolescent obsession for decades to come. The Call Me By Your Name star plays Laurie, a puppy dog of a person smitten with Jo, who's more apt to punch him in the shoulder than hold his hand. Their comfort with one another is evident in their authentically loose dynamic. But -- without getting into spoilers for a century-old story -- Laurie's scenes with Amy are equally important, and he and Pugh have a different, but no less remarkable chemistry.
Pugh, whose wails of trauma radiated through Midsommar this summer, emerges as the performer of the year thanks to her portrayal of Amy. The plot requires her to change the most over the course of the runtime, and she morphs from obstinate little girl to self-possessed young woman without the aid of any makeup or face-altering technology. (Take that, Robert De Niro.) She even subtly shifts the tenor of her voice as her character grows up, removing the whine as she evolves into a composed artist, deeply aware of her station in the world.