Little (United States, 2019)

April 12, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Little Poster

If it wasn’t for the charisma and screen presence of 13-year old Marsai Martin (TV’s Black-ish), Little would be damn near unwatchable. The writing and directing are at best ‘90s direct-to-video and the film’s unwillingness to do anything remotely interesting with the tired premise makes for a very long 105 minutes. Martin, however, allows the bad things in Little seem less bad and elevates the mediocre ones to the point where they’re almost good. She’s funny, confident, and adept at stealing the spotlight from the older, seasoned actors. When she’s off-screen for even a few minutes, things become painful.

Martin isn’t only the star of Little, she’s an executive producer. Inspired by the Tom Hanks movie Big, she devised the idea for Little then handed it off to Tina Gordon Chism for screenwriting and directing duties. The film is a loose member of the dreaded (and often dreadful) body-switching category (although in this case only half the swap occurs – a grown woman into a girl’s form), although the story owes a greater debt to Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol than it does to Big.

Little opens with a prologue set in 1993 that introduces middle schooler Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) to the audience. She’s a nerdy science geek who has a running war with the popular kids and, just when she gets her moment to shine during a school assembly, the bullies ruin it for her. (The scene, which results in Jordan breaking an arm, is shockingly unfunny in approach and execution. This is hardcore bullying played for a laugh.)

Jumping ahead 25 years, Jordan (now played by Regina Hall, whose total screen time is no more than ten minutes) is the owner of an up-and-coming tech firm; she runs the company with an iron fist and a no-nonsense approach. Her employees hate her – none more so than her personal assistant, April (Issa Rae), who must be available 24/7 to cater to her boss’ every whim. April’s goal in life is to work on her own app but she’s too meek to pitch it to Jordan, who probably wouldn’t listen anyway. One day, Jordan has an odd encounter with a kid selling donuts who waves a magic wand. Presto chango! The next morning, when Jordan’s alarm goes off, she faces the world not as the 39-year old tyrant of one of Atlanta’s hottest businesses but as a 13-year old girl. What’s worse, in order to get around Child Protective Services, she has to pretend that April is her aunt and a return to school is mandated – the same hellhole where she fell from grace a quarter century earlier. (And, of course, there’s a new bully and another talent show.)

For most of the movie, at least until a late-innings reversal, Jordan and April are positioned as rivals. They don’t like each other and it’s not hard to see why. Jordan is an entitled bitch stuck in an adolescent’s body and April is using the situation as an opportunity for advancement. Who’s supposed to be the protagonist? Doormat April is the more conventionally likable of the two but Martin’s performance is so assured that it’s impossible not to be wooed by her star power. Structurally, the movie is a mess.

The humor is typically sitcom-ish, tending more toward sophomoric gags than genuinely funny material. There are some laughs but not enough to justify the running length. Watching Little, I couldn’t help flashing back to the horrible 1987 Kirk Cameron/Dudley Moore misfire, Like Father, Like Son, which had similar ideas about what constitutes “comedy.” This new film, with its disjointed, episodic quality, often feels like a series of failed Saturday Night Live skits that drag on for long enough that watch-checking becomes a legitimate way to pass the time. Despite the big screen breakthrough performance by the larger-than-life Martin, Little comes up small.

Little (United States, 2019)

Director: Tina Gordon Chism
Cast: Marsai Martin, Issa Rae, Regina Hall
Home Release Date: 2019-07-09
Screenplay: Tina Gordon Chism, Tracy Oliver
Music: Germaine Franco
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2019-04-12
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1