When mean tech boss from hell Jordan Sanders (Regina Hall) wakes up one morning back in her 13-year-old body (Marsai Martin) in director Tina Gordon’s Little, the grown-up Jordan is forced to revisit and reckon with the painful moments of her adolescence. Fed up with her boss, Jordan’s assistant, April Williams (Issa Rae), uses this extraordinary event to take charge at work and feed her supervisor a much-deserved dose of humility.
A heartwarming allegory about the long-term effects of bullying on the psyche of a child and the adult she eventually becomes, it’s a movie that is as fun and carefree as we would wish any confident, self-accepting teenage girl to be. Like Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, Little seems to have tapped into a burgeoning genre for adult audiences: the horrified look-back at the cruelties of adolescence through the lens of a modern teen girl you can’t help but love.
Hall is only in about a third of the movie. But with her textbook physical-comedy chops — she plays goofiness as high art — and the precise way she zeroes in on what an adult woman with the emotional maturity of a teenager would look and sound like, you can’t help but wish there were some way for her to be in the whole thing.
But that’s what makes Little both more ambitious in its conceit than it initially seems and unable to fully deliver on the promise of its bold idea. Turns out it’s a lot harder to make a movie where an adult reverts to childhood than the reverse. It’s pretty easy to suspend disbelief with Tom Hanks in Penny Marshall’s Big because, let’s face it, there’s more permission for a grown man to behave like a boy in our world than there is for a grown woman to behave like her younger self. Add to that the fact that Little is a film that centers on different kinds of black women and girls and it quickly becomes clear just what a tall order phenom Marsai Martin, who executive produced the pic and pitched its original concept at age 10, has established.
Playing a grown woman in a girl’s body, Martin has to walk a sometimes fraught line between child and adult. More often than not, her character delivers the kind of precocious diabolic humor Martin has become known for as Diane Johnson on ABC’s Black-ish. The promo clip of young Jordan flirting with teacher Mr. Marshall, played by Justin Hartley (This Is Us), holds up no matter how many times you’ve seen it.
But at other times, this line between what a teen girl does and what an adult woman does is cringeworthy to watch — as when teenage Jordan unexpectedly comes on to the boyfriend of grown-up Jordan and he pulls away from her a beat too late. It’s not that Martin doesn’t have the acting skill to pull this off; it’s that an emotionally wounded teenager venturing into adult situations that slide easily toward the inappropriate is hard for any actor to make funny.
When the jokes in Little land, they really land — the comedic chemistry of Hall, Rae and Martin sings — but when they bomb, they really bomb. There’s a memorable musical number featuring Martin and Rae singing a classic Mary J. Blige tune that they both commit to, but it still doesn’t work. The scene is emblematic of an ongoing tension in the viewer of not being sure if we should cheer for Martin’s Jordan or be afraid for her. Meanwhile, a transphobic joke about a girl’s masculine appearance, while feeling true to the character who says it, perhaps isn’t worth the cheap laughs when you have Regina Hall in your movie for a limited amount of time and she can literally make anything funny. The script — penned by Tracy Oliver (Girls Trip) and director Gordon — could have benefited from one last punch-up to smooth out the bumps, especially in the second half.
Casting Rae may seem like an obvious choice given how far her star has risen; she’s currently in production on her fourth movie in as many years, and her HBO series Insecure has been renewed for a fourth season. But in order for the pic to work, April has to click onscreen with both grown-up Jordan and teen Jordan, and Rae’s now-familiar brand of self-deprecating yet earnest (at what point do we stop using the obligatory “awkward” to describe her?) black girl fits nicely into the gap between these two characters. In many ways, Rae’s performance holds the entire film together as she’s the one lead who appears from start to finish.
It’s worth mentioning that there are several terrific Easter eggs in the pic, including the stellar voice acting of Tracee Ellis Ross, the callbacks to Gordon’s first screenwriting credit, Drumline (or Beyonce’s Beychella Homecoming depending on your perspective), and the refreshing artwork from visual artists like Kenesha Sneed and Shyama Golden, curated by production designer Keith Brian Burns.
What really works about Little easily surpasses what doesn’t. It’s one of an increasing number of movies with black casts that Hollywood is slowly getting used to — movies that aren’t about the problems of blackness, but about the mundane existential ups and downs that people who happen to be black confront. Black girlhood is rarely explored with as much depth, care and well-intentioned humor onscreen as it is in Little. You leave the theater with a sense of just how hard it is to be a black girl who wants to escape the stereotypical boxes of society, and how liberating it can be when a grown woman gets to the place where she can finally exhale and accept her true self.
Production companies: Legendary Pictures, Will Packer Productions
Cast: Regina Hall, Issa Rae, Marsai Martin, Tone Bell, Justin Hartley, Tracee Ellis Ross, Mikey Day, JD McCrary, Tucker Meek, Thalia Tran, Marley Taylor, Eva Carlton, Luke James, Rachel Dratch
Director: Tina Gordon
Screenwriters: Tracy Oliver and Tina Gordon
Producers: Will Packer, Kenya Barris, James Lopez
Executive producers: Marsai Martin, Josh Martin, Regina Hall, Preston Holmes
Director of photography: Greg Gardiner
Production designer: Keith Brian Burns
Costume designer: Danielle Hollowell
Editor: David Moritz
Music: Germaine Franco
Rated PG-13, 108 minutes