Jo March reflects back and forth on her life, telling the beloved story of the March sisters – four young women each determined to live life on their own terms.
The story is told out of order, the young March sisters story running parallel to the older story. Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), grow up during the Civil War in Massachusetts, alongside their wealthy neighbor Laurie (Timothee Chalamet). Laurie is in love with Jo, but she turns him down, a free spirit who doesn’t want to be married. Meg marries and has children with Laurie’s tutor, in love but still poor. Beth dies of complications from scarlet fever. Amy and Laurie are eventually married. Jo, a writer, has a budding romance with Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), but as she chases after him we see her meeting with her book publisher, who tells her to change the ending so the heroine ends up married at the end, which she agrees to do in order to sell the book. Still, we then see the March family (with Bhaer) happy together in Aunt March (Meryl Streep)’s old house that Jo has turned into a school, and Jo finally gets a copy of her first printed book, “Little Women”.
The events of the movie are told not in chronological order – the stories of the younger March women and the adult March women run parallel to each other. The film opens with Jo meeting with Mr. Dashwood and then jumps back and forth in time.
The four March sisters – Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) – live in Massachusetts during the Civil War. Along with their mother Marmee (Laura Dern), they struggle to make ends meet while their father is away at war. On Christmas morning, the girls are excited for a feast, but before they can eat it Marmee asks them to give up their meal to the Hummel family, who are starving and living in a tiny cabin. The girls agree to do so, and Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence (Timothee Chalamet), who lives nearby in wealth with his grandfather Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), sees them. Upon returning find that an even more lavish feast awaits them, given by the Laurence family.
Meg and Jo are invited to a fancy party where Jo meets Laurie. Neither of them really cares for the frivolous party, and Meg has warned Jo her dress is ruined at the bottom, so they go outside and dance on their own until Meg sprains her ankle and they take her home. Jo spends time going to her rich and difficult Aunt March (Meryl Streep)’s home and reading to her. Aunt March wants Jo to be a proper lady and tells her maybe she will take her with her to Europe. The March family becomes friends with the Laurences. Mr. Laurence takes a liking to the very shy Beth, who reminds him of his deceased daughter. He implies (because she’s too shy to invite directly) to her that she can come over and play the piano whenever she likes, which she does beautifully.
One evening, Meg and Jo go with Laurie and his tutor John Brooke (James Norton) to a play. Amy begs to go with, and after Jo rudely tells her no, Amy angrily burns the book Jo has been writing to get back at her. Jo is devastated, and despite Amy’s apologies, she ignores her. The next day, Laurie and Jo go ice skating, and Amy chases after them. Jo ignores her and doesn’t warn her of the danger, and Amy falls through the frozen lake into the ice. Laurie and Jo rescue her, and Jo lets their fight go.
Meanwhile, Meg goes to a fancy party to meet suitors and dresses in one of her friend’s nicest dresses – Laurie is there and shames her for being taken in and following along with the fancy culture, hurting her feelings. He apologizes. The sisters have a secret club that Jo invites Laurie to join, and he puts a mailbox up that they can pass secret notes to each other in.
Meg begins to fall in love with John, despite him being poor. Beth makes Mr. Laurence a pair of shoes as a thank you, and in return he gives her a gift of her own beautiful piano. Marmee receives word that Mr. March is in bad shape and leaves to go tend to him. In order to pay for the trip, Jo sells her hair. John accompanies Marmee on the trip – she tells the girls to check in on the Hummel family. The girls neglect to do so, so Beth goes on her own and catches scarlet fever. Beth goes to Mr. Laurence to thank him for the piano and he notices her burning up with scarlet fever.
Jo and Meg have had it and are immune, but Amy is sent to stay with Aunt March, who tells her that since Meg is falling in love with a poor boy, and Jo is not inclined to be married, she must marry rich in order to take care of her entire family. When Beth won’t get better, the girls send for Marmee, who arrives to nurse Beth back to health. She recovers, and on Christmas, John arrives with a surprise: Mr. March (Bob Oedenkirk), the girls’s father, is finally home. The Christmas is a joy.
Meg and John get married, and Aunt March pays for the wedding despite her disapproval. Aunt March invites Amy to come to Europe with her, disappointing Jo. Laurie tells Jo he’s in love with her and wants to marry her – Jo is upset, not wanting to be married, and thinking it will be a bad idea that will only end with her and Laurie hating each other. She doesn’t love him in that way, and doesn’t believe it could work. Laurie is devastated, and Jo moves to New York to work in a boarding house teaching. She writes stories and sells a few little ones to Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) at the local publishing house. She meets her fellow boarder, Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), who likes Jo and thinks she’s a talented writer, but when he critiques some of her work, she rejects his opinion, furious.
In France, Amy is working on her painting and runs into Laurie. She invites him to come to a party, but he stands her up and shows up later, drunk and making a scene, still hurting over Jo. He mocks the man who is courting Amy, embarrassing her. Later, he apologizes, and brings up the idea of marrying her – which she rejects, telling him she has always been second to Jo and she won’t be again, not when she’s always loved Laurie. Meanwhile, Meg and John, now with children, struggle with money – Meg, feeling insecure about her wealth, overspent on a fancy dress. John feels he has disappointed her by not giving her a better life.
Jo receives word that Beth is very ill, and she leaves New York. She goes to the beach with Beth, who tells her she knows she’s dying. Jo insists not, but Beth asks her to write her a story, which she does. John tells Meg he wants her to have the dress she bought, but she tells him she’s already sold the fabric, and the two affirm their commitment to each other. Beth succumbs to her illness and dies, devastating the family. Jo tells Marmee maybe she made a mistake with Laurie, that even though she doesn’t think she should have to marry she’s lonely. Marmee asks her if she’s in love with Laurie, and her answer gives away that she isn’t really. She writes a note for him saying she has made a mistake and leaves it in their mailbox.
Amy receives word about Beth and Laurie accompanies her home – she tells him she turned down a proposal, and he kisses her. Laurie arrives and tells Jo he and Amy have gotten married. She is shocked, runs and tears up her note, and then tells Amy that she is happy for her. Mr. Lawrence can’t bear to enter the March house knowing Beth won’t be there, but Jo offers him comfort and notes while she isn’t Beth, she can be a friend. Jo burns her writing, but finds the story she wrote for Beth, and stays up night after night writing several chapters of a book, which she sends to Mr. Dashwood, who eventually tells her the story is too small and domestic to be worthwhile.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dashwood’s daughters find the chapters and beg to know what happens next to the sisters, confusing him. Friedrich arrives in Massachusetts, claiming to have been in the area and checks in on Jo. He has dinner with the whole family, who see clearly how much Jo likes him. He says he has a job offer in California and with nothing to stay for will probably take it. When he leaves, everyone tells Jo to go after him, so Meg and Amy take Jo in a carriage to chase after him in the rain.
The scene is interrupted by Jo meeting with Mr. Dashwood, who wants her to change the ending, where the lead heroine ends up with no man. She says that’s the character said she never wanted to be married from the beginning and that that’s the ending, and he tells her the book will never sell that way. So she agrees to change the ending. They then spar back and forth over her percentage of proceeds of her book and the copyright, which Jo insists on keeping.
Jo chases after Friedrich, stopping him before he leaves, and the two kiss. Aunt March dies and leaves Jo her house, which she turns into a school. The whole extended March family (Bhaer included, and Amy and Laurie have a baby) celebrate Marmee’s birthday there, happy together. At the printing press, Jo finally receives a copy of her book, “Little Women”.
Four teenaged sisters and their mother, whom they call Marmee, live in a new neighborhood (loosely based on Concord) in Massachusetts in genteel poverty. Having lost all his money, their father is acting as a pastor, miles from home, involved in the American Civil War. The women face their first Christmas without him.
Meg and Jo March, the elder two, have to work in order to support the family: Meg teaches a nearby family of four children; Jo assists her aged great-aunt March, a wealthy widow living in a mansion, Plumfield. Beth, too timid for school, is content to stay at home and help with housework; Amy is still at school. Meg is beautiful and traditional, Jo is a tomboy who writes; Beth is a peacemaker and a pianist; Amy is an artist who longs for elegance and fine society.
Jo is impulsive and quick to anger. One of her challenges is trying to control her anger, a challenge that her mother experiences. She advises Jo to speak with forethought before leaving to travel to Washington, where her husband has pneumonia.
Their neighbour, Mr. Laurence, who is charmed by Beth, gives her a piano. Beth contracts scarlet fever after spending time with a poor family where three children die. Jo tends Beth in her illness. Beth recovers, but never fully. As a precaution, Amy is sent to live with Aunt March, replacing Jo, while Beth is ill and still infectious.
Jo has success earning money with her writing. Meg spends two weeks with friends, where there are parties for the girls to dance with boys and improve social skills. Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, Mr. Laurence’s grandson, is invited to one of the dances, as Meg’s friends incorrectly think she is in love with him. Meg is more interested in John Brooke, Laurie’s young tutor. Brooke goes to Washington to help Mr. March. While with the March parents, Brooke confesses his love for Meg. They are pleased but consider Meg too young to be married. Brooke agrees to wait but enlists and serves a year or so in the war. After he is wounded, he returns to find work so he can buy a house ready for when he marries Meg. Laurie goes off to college. On Christmas Day, a year after the book’s opening, the girls’ father returns from the war.
(Published separately in the United Kingdom as Good Wives)
Three years later, Meg and John marry and learn how to live together. When they have twins, Meg is a devoted mother but John begins to feel left out. Laurie graduates from college, having put in effort to do well in his last year with Jo’s prompting. Amy goes on a European tour with her aunt and Beth’s health is weak and her spirits are down. When trying to uncover the reason for Beth’s sadness, Jo realizes that Laurie has fallen in love. At first she believes it’s with Beth but soon senses it’s with herself. Jo confides in Marmee, telling her that she loves Laurie but she loves him like a brother and that she could not love him the romantic way.
Jo decides she wants a bit of adventure and wants to put distance between herself and Laurie, hoping he forgets his feelings. She spends six months with a friend of her mother in New York City, serving as governess for her two children. The family runs a boarding house. She takes German lessons with Professor Bhaer, who lives in the house. He has come to America from Berlin to care for the orphaned sons of his sister. For extra money, Jo writes stories without a moral, which disappoints Bhaer. He persuades her to give up poorly written sensational stories as her time in New York comes to an end. When she returns, Laurie proposes marriage and she declines.
Laurie travels to Europe with his grandfather to escape his heartbreak. At home, Beth’s health has seriously deteriorated. Jo devotes her time to the care of her dying sister. Laurie encounters Amy in Europe, and he slowly falls in love with her as Laurie begins to see Amy in a new light. However, she is unimpressed by the aimless, idle and forlorn attitude he had adopted after being rejected by Jo, and inspires him to find his purpose and do something worthwhile with his life. With the news of Beth’s death, they meet for consolation and their romance grows. Amy’s aunt will not allow Amy to return with just Laurie and his grandfather, so they marry before returning home from Europe.
Professor Bhaer goes to the Marches’ and stays for two weeks. On his last day, he proposes to Jo. Jo accepts. When Aunt March dies, she leaves Plumfield to Jo. She and Bhaer turn the house into a school for boys. They have two sons of their own, and Amy and Laurie have a daughter. At the apple-picking time, Marmee celebrates her 60th birthday at Plumfield, with her husband, her three surviving daughters, their husbands, and her five grandchildren.