Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women (1868-69) is a story about four sisters growing up in the Civil War years; Greta Gerwig’s adaptation is a film about a book named Little Women. Jo March, the sister with literary aspirations—played here by Saoirse Ronan—has always been understood as a surrogate for Alcott herself, and Gerwig’s script makes that explicit. At one point, Jo reads her sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen) a passage she has written, and fans of the book will recognize it as Alcott’s description of a pretend “post office”—actually a box in a hedge—used by the March girls and their young male neighbor Laurie. Gerwig’s film is a version of that post office: it’s a staging post for passing messages between Alcott’s book and a 21st-century audience at a moment when feminist concerns are farther to the fore in the cinematic imagination than at any other time when Alcott’s book has been filmed.

The last high-profile screen version of Little Women was Gillian Armstrong’s stately 1994 film, with Winona Ryder as Jo and Susan Sarandon as her mother, “Marmee.” Visually and in mood, Gerwig’s film has some continuity with Armstrong’s—as you might expect, since that film’s writer, Robin Swicord, and producer, Denise Di Novi, are producing here, along with Amy Pascal, which suggests a conscious attempt to refine and rethink something that already worked rather well. But Gerwig takes matters in a new direction, at once more playful and more sober, and very self-conscious. Her film is a story of literary apprenticeship that ends with the appearance of the oeuvre after an extended process of living and of contemplating and comprehending that life: Alcott with a dash of Proust.

The famous moments of the novel are here, but framed as memories, fragments of the March girls’ experience that become the material for the work that Jo, or Alcott, will write. It makes sense that Gerwig’s film is so episodic. Little Women is one of those books whose readers remember not a storyline (for stretches, there isn’t one per se) but a series of individual episodes, part of a loose evocation of family life: the limes, Amy on the ice, her burning of Jo’s book, older sister Meg’s experience at a ball. In the film, the episodes are sewn like individual disconnected moments into an overall story about Jo coming to terms with lost love, thwarted ambition, disappointment, and death. The reward for her struggle is success as a writer, and Gerwig, while making us share her triumph, shows us that there’s a price to be paid for it—partly because Jo, as a woman of her time, faces particular obstacles, partly also because the human condition is a tough wrestle if you’re a writer who takes your experience seriously (and gosh, do all these March girls, under Marmee’s improving tutelage, take their moral development seriously). The film begins with a caption quoting Alcott—“I had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales”—but the film merges jollity with trouble, and you can’t always easily pick them apart.

Little Women rhymes with Gerwig’s previous film Lady Bird in being again centered around Ronan, who played the director’s alter ego in that teenage Bildungsroman, and in a sense plays it again here. The film begins with Jo seen from behind in somber black, about to visit a prospective publisher: the literary business, as seen here, has a touch of the funereal about it and the office of Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) looks as if it might harbor Herman Melville’s Bartleby in some dark alcove. Dashwood sourly spells out the rules of sellable fiction to Jo: make it spicy, he says (“Morals don’t sell nowadays”) and remember, in future writing, “If the main character is a girl, make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead.”

Life in the March household, with all its coziness and all its deprivation, is framed as the remembered background of a young writer. When the film begins, childhood is long gone. Jo is in New York, living in a boarding house, scraping by and trying to launch a career, while youngest sister Alice (Florence Pugh) is visiting Paris with her aunt (Meryl Streep) and learning to paint, apparently doing pastiches, sans female nude, of Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe. It’s only a few minutes into the film that we hear that Jo has turned down Laurie’s marriage proposal—and we don’t even know who Laurie is yet. It might seem that Gerwig is counting somewhat recklessly on our familiarity with Alcott—but it’s a clever way to reel us in if we don’t know the book, and to make us feel that we’re watching real people with real pasts that we have to get to know.

In the present of Jo’s adulthood, her budding romance—very ambivalently handled here—with a European scholar (Louis Garrel) takes in a boisterous, euphoric whirl in a working-class dance hall that oddly recalls the below-decks scenes in Titanic. It implicitly suggests that this Jo, far from single-mindedly virginal as she’s usually depicted, might have access to sexual adventures if she’s so inclined.

A caption—“Seven years earlier”—introduces us to the four March sisters. All four actresses manage the age range very well, especially Florence Pugh as Amy, who starts out a willful, narcissistic child, then later becomes a strong-willed, self-possessed young woman doing Europe, who might have walked out of a Henry James novel. We get a selection of famous Alcott moments—the shrieks over Meg’s singed hair, Jo’s goofy dance at a party with Laurie—and many scenes of sisterly conviviality, which Gerwig does brilliantly. When the girls are together—sometimes with Timothée Chalamet’s Laurie joining in, sometimes with Laura Dern’s Marmee overseeing the chaos—Gerwig has them speak in an uncontainable tumble of overlapping dialogue that inevitably has a ring of Robert Altman, but more than anything suggests the hectic, exuberant rhythms of Gerwig’s own familiar style as an actor.

With low ceilings looming over the action, the home—as designed by Jess Gonchor and photographed by Yorick Le Saux—sometimes looks spacious, sometimes cramped, as befits an economically challenged existence, but as also befits the change from youthful idyll to adult realism. The idyll years have a golden light, as in a beach party scene—from which Gerwig cuts to Jo and Beth on the beach, years later, in a melancholy haze of blue and grey. There’s also a sense that nothing in the childhood period is altogether real. When the girls don fancy dress, performing a melodrama for an audience of local girls or taking up top hats and pipes to play literary clubmen, it comes across—in this costume drama by a director very much associated with the present moment—as a dressing-up party within a dressing-up party, giving the film a sharp self-referential quality.

The casting is astute. Ronan exudes an energy, a naturalness and a seriousness, that make her utterly plausible as a creative intellectual with a huge appetite for life. Pugh can be skittishly childlike as young Amy, then bring the older girl the fierce, almost scary self-possession she showed in her breakthrough film Lady Macbeth. As the introspective musician Beth, up-and-comer Eliza Scanlen (who also stood out this year in Shannon Murphy’s Australian drama Babyteeth) has a quietly imposing presence. Perhaps Emma Watson doesn’t impose herself as strongly as she might in the thankless role of oldest sister Meg, but she has a haunting careworn moment mulling over the household accounts with her eventual husband John.

Fans of Laura Dern’s flamboyantly feral attorney in Marriage Story may be disappointed by her solid, resilient Marmee, but she too has a great simple moment when she walks in from outside, promptly adjusting her careworn look to a reassuring motherly smile. As forbidding but tender aunt March, Meryl Streep goes gamely into Maggie Smith mode, with sallow face and sour looks, conveying authority and disapproval from under her purple lace—and with a sharp jab of complicity, letting the rebellious Jo know that, despite the official line she takes, she shares her niece’s skeptical views on marriage.

Thrown into the center of all this like a floppy puppy is Chalamet, who makes Laurie—American teenage fantasy’s original non-threatening boy next door—into something of an unapologetic dickhead. There’s a terrible ring to his disregard when he comes home to be greeted by a rapturous Jo, and drops a major revelation into her lap with shocking casualness. Earlier, Laurie sees Meg at the ball and vents his disapproval of her looking so fancy; in the novel, he comes across as voicing a sobering caution about vanity and casting aside childhood too early, but here it sounds like the comment of a sanctimonious prig putting Meg in her place for enjoying her own beauty.

This is a film of considerable beauty and grace: there’s a magnificent shot of Beth alone in a room at the piano, lit à la Vermeer, while a wedding, marking the passing of childhood, is all in autumnal gold, green, and purple (Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are superb throughout). Overall, the visual and tonal sobriety find the depth in the book, and give or take a few years, the film brings Alcott’s world close to that of Edith Wharton’s novels, placing it in the same social universe as The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence. Indeed, the scene where Laurie helps Amy off with her painter’s smock catches a touch of the same hyper-discreet eroticism as the glove moment in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the latter book.

Gerwig does consistently tell us what’s on her mind, and gets away with it. The debates about women’s place in society and marriage as an economic arrangement are made explicit in several dialogues, as are the arguments about female creativity—and Gerwig has Alcott to back her up. One key line of Jo’s—“I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe”—was something Alcott herself said.

Just as consistently, the film is always reminding us that Jo won’t be defeated in her pursuit of success, because Alcott wasn’t: hence knowing lines like, “Jo March won’t be forgotten,” or Jo’s comment, “If I were a girl in a book, this would all be so easy.” There’s a knowing touch of the modern in the sequence where Jo, writing away like a fury, arranges the sheets of her novel on the floor, and we can’t help thinking of that standard screenwriters’ practice of pinning your scenes on the wall—here we’re reminded that Jo is Gerwig too.

Gerwig also gets away with an outrageous barefaced stroke of having it both ways at the end of the film—satisfying the romantic expectations of the novel’s fans, but also defusing them, making it clear that Jo is a determinedly modern writer who doesn’t buy into those soppy conventions. It’s handled with insouciant postmodern cheek: a sort of French Lieutenant’s Little Women moment.

Jonathan Romney is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes the Film of the Week column. He is a member of the London Film Critics Circle.