LITTLE WOMEN – ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES I’VE SEEN IN YEARS

SHORT TAKE:

Artfully modernized, faithfully told beautiful adaptation for the contemporary audience of the classic story, Little Women.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Everyone. Anyone. All ages. Please go, bring friends.

LONG TAKE:

We know this story extremely well, inside and out. I’ve read the book. I’ve taught it as part of our curriculum several times over the span of homeschooling six kids.  I have seen a number of filmed versions including the appalling one where Katherine Hepburn was way too old to play Jo and a lovely one with Susan Sarandon as Marme. Our family was IN the danged play at our local community theater 12 years ago. My second oldest daughter played the lead, Jo, and the rest of our family either had parts on stage, behind the scenes or were present for every rehearsal cheering their siblings on. We’ve incorporated lines and expressions like "love lornity" and how French is a "silly slippery language" from the play into our traditional family sayings. Shoot, with four girls of our own, there were times I've felt as though we were LIVING scenes from Little Women…but I had never truly appreciated the story of Little Women until I saw this 2018 modernized film.

Little Women, marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of the source book, has been refurbished to modern day and is arguably one of the best movies I have seen in years. The film makers have adapted this Civil War era story to the 21st century with the same skill as the innovative Cumberbatch-Freeman Sherlock updated the original Conan Doyle invention, or Steve Martin refreshed Cyrano de Bergerac into the whimsical Roxanne – that is to say with both seamless, creative invention and great respectful affection for the source material. It is a testament to the timelessness of the concepts foundational to Louisa May Alcott’s novel that it translates so well, but it is the talent of the gifted screenwriter Kristi Shimek, newbie director Clare Niederpruem and the actors that makes it blossom onto the screen.

For the benefit of anyone suffering the misfortune of not being familiar with the story, the premise of Little Women follows Jo March from childhood to womanhood as she and her sisters grow and mature together in the warm embrace of loving parents and stalwart friends through joys, embarrassments, mistakes, misunderstandings, and the other comedies and tragedies of life.

For those who are blessed with a familiarity of the subject, rest assured the writer and director have a love and respect for the material. The tale has not been changed by the displacement in time, but is transformed into an image more familiar and therefore more accessible to 21st century audiences, without altering a single iota of character development, story arc, or theme. John Bunyan’s famous Christian allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, is as notable here as it was in the original script and novel, forming the underlying themes of passage from human frailty and sin to redemption, suffering the travails of life with forgiveness, courage, and love. Instead of the Civil War, the father is deployed overseas. Instead of letters they have Skype. The charity the original characters perform for a starving mother and children next door is done at a homeless shelter. The children are homeschooled and the social faux pas are appropriately updated to reflect the unwiseness of modern youth. As many lines as can be are pulled directly from the book, but updates, where needed, are appropriately made.

I’ve known Lea Thompson was a fine actress ever since I first saw Back to the Future at the theater in 1985. I was floored to discover, some 20 minutes into the movie when Marty goes back to the past, that the same woman who played a dowdy, overweight, burnt out, disillusioned and embittered alcoholic was NOT in fact 50 years old but a brilliant little 24 year old actress who nailed the tragic first version of Lorraine in the opening scenes of that now famous movie. She hits the bull's eye again in Little Women as Marme, the gentle, warm and archetype maternal figure of the March family.

I was honestly not familiar with any of the other cast members before seeing this Little Women. Most harken from TV shows and B movies, but every one of the performers is not only tremendous in their roles, but fit into and shape their characters so perfectly I will have difficulty ever thinking of these March family members and friends as anyone but them (with the except of our own family members, of course).

Sarah Davenport is perfect as the high strung, impulsive, often unthinking and deeply emotional Jo. Allie Jennings ditto as Jo’s favorite sister and alter ego, the gentle, kind and resolute Beth. Melanie Stone is lovely as Meg, wanting nothing more than to be a wife and mother. Elise Jones and Taylor Murphy playing the younger and older Amy, respectively, do a great job of the self absorbed and easily smitten youngest sister without losing Amy’s vulnerability. Lucas Grabeel steps into the part of Laurie with just the right combination of awkward and delightful as the lonely young man next door anxious to join a family. Ian Bohen as the caring and insightful Professor Freddie Bhaer, Bart Johnson as the warm and loving Papa March, Michael Flynn as Laurie’s kind and thoughtful grandfather Mr. Lawrence, Stuart Edge as Brooke, Barta Heiner as Aunt March and even Goober the cat contribute their support to this brilliant and beautiful film adaptation for the contemporary audience.

The dress and sets are simple and fit the time and place of a family of well cared for and spiritually sound young women. The sweetly fitting soundtrack is decorated with modern day songs which accurately reflect the needs of the film's moods. Most of the action takes place in and around the March and Lawrence homes. The filming style is of flash – backs and forwards – as time moves on and memories are rekindled by events in Jo’s dynamic present. And I really enjoyed the cinematically creative and tasteful way Ms. Niederpruem conveyed the passage of time.

Go see this wonderful version of Little Women. Read the book either before or after…or both…and gain a fresh new appreciation for this enchanting, inspiring and enduring tale of spiritual growth, family strength and the power that love and faith have over the buffets and trials of life. Bring Kleenex.

THE MIRACLE SEASON – INSPIRING TRUE LIFE EXAMPLE OF OVERCOMING GRIEF THROUGH PURPOSE AND FAITH

SHORT TAKE:

The Miracle Season accurately and lovingly recounts the 2010 Iowa City West High School volleyball state champions' attempt to win the trophy a second time after the tragic death of their team captain and town’s indefatiguably optimistic and joyful Caroline Found.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Everybody and anybody. Especially anyone interested in sports in general and volleyball in particular. Completely clean without a single bad word, zero hanky panky, and a genuine respect for religion. However, the youngest in the family might get bored.

SOME INDIRECT BUT UNAVOIDABLE SPOILERS

LONG TAKE:

Movies have three big vehicles they use for bonding people together: putting on a show, sports, or a disaster (See my article on "Cataclysm as Marital Therapy"). The Miracle Season uses two of them, sports and disaster, to recreate a series of events which bond and heal a small town in Iowa, a heartbroken high school team, and friends and family near the epicenter of a tragedy.

The story recounts the real life events of the Found family and those who love them. Ernie Found (the versatilely talented William Hurt of everything from General and Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross in the Marvel movies to Nick the self destructive drug dealer in The Big Chill) is the devoted husband to his dying wife Ellyn (Jilliam Fargey) and the father of three young adults. The youngest, Caroline, "Line" to those who know her, (played by Danika Yarosh), is the Captain of the team and a loving, free-spirited, open hearted, energetic, joy-filled young woman whose wholesome enthusiasm for life and people is infectious and makes her a natural leader both of her team and in life to her friends. There is no spoiler, as it is the feature of the trailer that Caroline’s life was cut short by a vehicular accident.

Grief is the most challenging opponent for everyone in the film. In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life Clarence reminds George that: "Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" The Miracle Season recounts how those touched lives heal from the terrible wound left by the loss of this young lady.

Directed by Sean McNamara, who has concentrated on true-life inspirational stories like Soul Surfer and Hoovey, The Miracle Season centers around the 2010 Iowa City State Volleyball Champions. Caroline Found is the Captain of the team and the start of their season in 2011 is off to a slow start. They lose their first few games even before the tragedy. After Caroline’s death they forfeit the next game, as their coach notes that, "They can barely brush their teeth," let alone practice or compete. Appealing to Caroline’s best friend Kelley, (Erin Moriarty) long time Coach Kathy "Bres" Bresnahan (the terrific Helen Hunt who is at home in comedies like the charming TV show "Mad About You," dramedies like As Good as it Gets, dramas like Pay it Forward, and other inspirational films like Soul Surfer) encourages her not to give up in a "Win one for the Gipper" theme, which, ultimately falls short of what the team needs.

To add insult to injury, Dr. Found’s wife succumbs to her long illness the night after Caroline’s wake, Dr. Found’s faith sinks to a lifetime low, Bres' husband has left her, Kelley feels woefully unprepared to replace Caroline as Captain, and the girls can’t even get through practice without crying. With no where to go but up the rest of the tale addresses a courage subsequently shown by Dr. Found, the girls on the team, Kelley, and Coach Bres that all of us would be blessed to have. (NOTE: As a small but significant FYI, Dr. Found states he did not have a crisis of faith but understood the need to dramatize this point. Dr. Found's character in the movie gave voice to all of us who might question our beliefs when required to face such calamatous wrenching events, acknowledging the need to address this deep wound along with the others inflicted in terrible situations such as these, as well as the courage and resilience to think of others instead of one's own pain.)

Ultimately, everyone must learn to wrestle their own anger, pain, and self doubt before healing can truly begin. This would all seem like so much soap opera tear wringing, except that it really happened. Not many movies are made about this kind of event because, thankfully, it doesn’t happen that often. But, watching The Miracle Season, I was reminded of another movie that dealt with a similar tragedy.

United was a BBC film starring David Tennant (best Dr. Who EVER!) about the 1958 football season which followed a take-off air crash that claimed the lives of half the Manchester United football team, leaving two of the remaining team members too injured to ever play again. Nonetheless, the chief coach and assistant manager (Tennant) managed to pull together a team from the survivors, reservists and a few new signers which made it to the FA Final Cup in 1958.

Both United and The Miracle Season are beautifully and movingly done memorials to the tragedy and the stalwart perseverance, courage and fortitude shown by the survivors and their loved ones.

Rarely, outside of a Marvel movie, have fellow audience members stayed through the credits, the way I normally do. Although patrons sounded as though they had come down suddenly with a slight head cold and kleenexes were pulled out, to a person they stayed put as video clips, biographical notes, photos and interview bites were displayed alongside the cast and crew credits. Photos of Caroline Found, interview segments with Dr. Found, video of Mrs. Found’s trembling courageous smile as she painfully walked down the church aisle at her daughter’s wake,  sports announcers who did color, clips of the real team, and headlines about the team during this incredible season all testified to the detail accuracy of the film we had just watched. And, in what I thought was justifiable pride, the clip of the final point from the real game was played – and showed it had been dead on accurately and honestly re-created in the movie.

I have played volleyball in both high school and college. I was not very good. But I played enough to at least recognize good when I see it. The girls in the news clips were amazing and the actresses who played the girls in the movie did a fine job re-enacting some very tricky plays. I really enjoyed the presentation of the games. The writer neither dwells on nor avoids obscure minutia of playing techniques but employs volleyball-ese routinely in the dialogue. The director, McNamara, respects the audience and trusts his own editing and filming choices to believe that we viewers will get it – and we do.

They do not make the mistake of over-using the trope of players' overcoming flaws as pivot points of the story but doesn't ignore them either. He allows those small victories to organically build to the final outcome of the Championship moments.

Much like the effective scene in A Chorus Line where the same dance move is repeated in quick succession by a variety of the participants, we see the West team members at various times spike, serve, block, and  bench press. This visual exercise both exemplifies the unity of the teammates as well as serves to demonstrate their individual characters, and serves the pragmatic purpose of adding face time to each player, helping identify each player instead of having them blend unrecognizably into one blur of "team".

There is no Karate Kid bad guy. The only antagonists are illness and accident – the everyday ordinary crises we all face in one form or another, to one degree or another. The winning, as The Miracle Season so beautifully points out, is in how we handle the disasters we are given to face, the gratitude to God with which we face them, and the ability we show to continue to do our best regardless of the odds.

The Miracle Season is an inspiration, not just as a well made sports movie but as an example of shining through even the most terrible of personal tragedies for the benefit of others, if not for yourself.

Sports, at its best, pushes our personal limits, tests our spirit, challenges us to overcome our weaknesses, and reveals the best within us that perhaps we didn't even know was there. Sport champions, at their best, demonstrate these exercises in obtaining virtue. The champions in the Iowa City West high school volleyball team not only had to push through the physical pains of the game but had to learn to deal with the far more brutal agony of grief. Those who loved Caroline Found were champions, not for any accomplishments on the court but because they learned to face all of their pain and showed us how it's done in The Miracle Season.