Little movie review: small and slight indeed

part of my Directed by Women series
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Little red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Bullying tech CEO is cursed to revert to powerless kid-dom. The limp, desperate comedy that follows never figures out who its audience is and is often unintentionally obnoxious and disturbing.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by and about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

It’s Big in reverse (and gender swapped)… and it doesn’t work. Like, at all. When boss-from-hell tech CEO Jordan Sanders (Regina Hall: Vacation, Death at a Funeral) is nasty to the wrong nerdy little girl, Stevie (Marley Taylor), the kid curses Jordan to revert to being a powerless child herself. And so Jordan wakes up the next morning a kid again, played by 14-year-old Marsai Martin, who isn’t only a producer of this limp yet desperate comedy but supplied the idea for it as well. Yet in spite of some grownup involvement — from director Tina Gordon, who cowrote the script with Girls Trip’s Tracy Oliver — Little plays like a kid’s idea of what it means to be an adult and what the grownup world is like.

At first there’s a surprising self-assurance in appealing young Martin’s (Fun Mom Dinner) impersonation of adult Jordan’s arrogance and bullying, but it soon becomes apparent that watching a child pretend to be an adult is less than amusing, and, as it plays out here, often unintentionally obnoxious and occasionally rather disturbing, as when tween-Jordan comes on to not one but two adult men (Justin Hartley [A Bad Moms Christmas] and Luke James); thankfully, they are also horrified. In another bizarre sequence that is either badly edited or, oddly, suddenly deliberately coy, it is strongly suggested that adult-in-a-kid’s-body Jordan has been drinking alcohol, yet that is not overtly depicted. Instead we get what is presumably the drunken aftermath, which takes the form of a cringey musical interlude.

Little Regina Hall
A taste for high fashion as a signifier of villainy is an odd tack for a movie that is ostensibly aimed at women to take…

Cheap, forced, very lowbrow comedy is the main game here, as now-little Jordan must contend with attending middle school again, and re-navigating the bullies-eat-nerds ecosystem that, back in the 90s, had prompted her to turn from prey to predator. Meanwhile, Jordan’s harried and abused executive assistant, April Wiliams (Issa Rae), is trying to hold down the office — all those grownup “meetings” and “pitches”! — while simultaneously learning how to assert herself and use the boss’s absence to bring her own long-quashed ideas to the fore.

It takes Little way too long to figure out who its audience is — adults who miss being a kid? kids who can’t wait to be adults? anybody coping with a bully? (and never settles on any of these) — or who its protagonist is. The hugely charismatic Rae’s April really deserves center stage, not least because she’s the only character who isn’t a cartoon, but, well, Jordan bullies her out of it. Yet it’s almost impossible to care if Jordan is redeemed and becomes a better person: she doesn’t deserve it and she doesn’t earn it. Worse, the subplot about kid-Jordan trying to convince a little gang of middle-school dorks (JD McCrary, Tucker Meek [A Walk in the Woods], and Thalia Tran) to stand up for themselves is painfully unconvincing. The kids don’t feel like real kids at all, and it’s instantly plain that Jordan’s plan threatens to end up with a lesson that will be either banal (“Be yourself no matter what!”) or wrong-headed (“Turning nasty and bullying is a good life plan!”). Neither will make for a satisfying finale.

It’s terrific to see a mainstream film getting a wide release where the main creative forces both in front of the camera and behind the scenes are black women, but apart from cursing Stevie and her toy wand, there’s little “black girl magic” — a phrase that is specifically invoked — in Little. I wish it were otherwise.

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