The individual elements of Little have all been committed to film before, which makes it all the more remarkable that it feels fresh. Directed and co-written by Tina Gordon, Little falls halfway between Big and Shazam!, combining age-swap shenanigans with lessons about self-confidence and kindness — and adding its own unique spin on things to the mix.
Tech mogul Jordan Sanders (Regina Hall) is turned back into her 13-year old self (Marsai Martin) in an act of magical retribution for how tyrannical she’s become as an adult, and forced to re-enroll in the very same middle school that left her with such a chip on her shoulder. Her long-suffering, timid assistant April (Issa Rae) becomes both her babysitter and her stand-in, running the company so long as Jordan remains indisposed.
But Jordan is also facing a work crisis, raising the stakes even higher. Her biggest investor, an archetypal tech bro played with gusto by SNL’s Mikey Day, is about to jump ship. If she doesn’t come up with a pitch to impress him within two days, he’ll be out the door. As it just so happens, April has been working on an app idea, but Jordan isn’t about to take tips from her assistant.
The lessons both are set to learn are fairly evident: Jordan needs to learn to stop being a bully, and on the other end of the spectrum, April needs to learn to stand up for herself. The specifics of everything in between (we never fully understand the magic behind Jordan’s transformation, for instance) are left nebulous, but that’s just the kind of reliance on goodwill that every other film of this kind has coasted by on. So long as you don’t stress the small stuff, Little can promise you a good time.
But Little doesn’t need to lay out rules, or stick them. The joy comes from watching its three lead actresses cut loose. Hall, Martin, and Rae are all unbelievably charismatic, and easily hit home runs with material that would fall flat in anyone else’s hands. Martin is a born star (she is also now the youngest executive producer in history); Hall is so much fun to watch that it’s difficult to root for her character’s comeuppance; and Rae, though a little more muted by virtue of playing a less confident character, is more than capable of holding her own.
Sadly, there’s never any excuse for Hall and Martin to be onscreen together. The point of the film may be for Jordan to change her domineering ways, but watching Hall strike fear into the hearts of an entire workplace is thrilling, and moreso when Martin parrots her fierceness. The only thing better would be seeing them in action together. When the film opens with the young Jordan’s revelation that, when she grows up, she’ll be able to lord it over the kids who torment her, you root for her to make that vision come true. Sure, it’s a super-villain origin story dressed in a coming-of-age story’s clothes, but sometimes the villains are just more interesting.
Jordan is so fun that the idea that she has to change feels even more blatantly trite. Gordon seems to be aware of that, if not necessarily capable of avoiding the resulting traps. The film smartly undercuts some of its most eye-rollingly saccharine moments (a big, heartfelt, eleven o’clock speech gets interrupted halfway through) and the ending avoids suggesting that total change is possible overnight, but these beats are the exception rather than the rule.
The other fresh elements of Little are similarly slight. It’s notable that all three lead actresses are black, and the film makes jokes (about hair, about how rarely these kinds of situational comedies center on people of color) that wouldn’t be told anywhere else. There’s further territory worth digging into — the degree to which women of color face discrimination in the workplace and in their respective industries; the way Jordan’s passion project, a digital assistant called “Homegirl,” has its hair in waves, eschewing the way tech is almost always geared towards a white, male audience — but Little never pulls those threads hard enough. But because the film remains at a surface level, jokes involving the young-ified Jordan’s attempts at flirting with adult men stay (at least a little) funny rather than just deeply uncomfortable.
The rest of the cast (Tone Bell as April’s crush, Luke James as Jordan’s boy toy, Justin Hartley as a hapless middle school teacher) acquit themselves well, but this is Hall, Martin, and Rae’s show. There wouldn’t even be a Little without Martin — the idea for the story was hers — and there’s nothing in the movie that merits much attention beyond their performances. Little is a star vehicle that its actors elevate beyond being Big in reverse; I just wish that the material could elevate its stars, too.