Jane Austen may be the 19th-century female author currently en vogue, but Louisa May Alcott's most famous novel, "Little Women," is still a must-read for young girls, and has been an influence for female authors from Simone de Beauvoir to J.K. Rowling.
Nancy Porter's documentary "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women" explores the writer's tumultuous short life. Her childhood ranged from idyllic days in Concord to near-starvation in her father Bronson's ill-fated utopian community, Fruitlands, in Harvard. Alcott's writing became a way to help support the family. Though known best for her children's novels, she also wrote extensively under pseudonyms for pulp fiction magazines.
Porter uses a blend of talking-head interviews, dramatizations, and animation to illuminate Alcott's life. Most of the reenactment dialogue is taken from firsthand accounts, letters, documents, and journal entries - an approach that can be stilted in the wrong hands. But Elizabeth Marvel, who plays Alcott, manages to deliver the author's musings with both humor and gravitas. Daniel Gerroll, as Bronson, seems less comfortable with the material, and comes off sounding stodgy and old-timey. No matter how good the acting, however, the constant dramatizing feels like more of a crutch for the storytelling than an enhancement. So, too, do the scenes of animation that detail the inner workings of Alcott's psyche with a mix of drawings, old photographs, and what appear to be paper dolls. They are lovely and haunting images, but the surrealist touch seems out of sync with the rest of the film.
It's in the interviews with historians and scholars that the documentary really delivers. These include author Geraldine Brooks and Jan Turnquist, the director of Orchard House, where Alcott wrote "Little Women." Brooks in particular is charming. She, like so many other girls, saw herself as Jo, the wildly independent protagonist of "Little Women." Her thoughts on Alcott's life and work truly illuminate the power that Alcott has had on generations of girls.