Film Review: ‘Little’ Brings Big Laughs to an Uneven Story

Sometimes, even when a story doesn’t quite come together, it all still works. The new film “Little” is a perfect example. Often laugh-out-loud funny, this take on the body switch comedy sometimes wanders off its own path, but never loses its heart or humor.

“Little” opens on 13-year-old Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin), onstage at the school talent show. The events that transpire for the plucky seventh grader set her on the path that will eventually lead her to become a tech leader in the form of Regina Hall. But where Little Jordan hoped for friends and acceptance, Big Jordan is a titan on heels, threatening to have valets fired and ridiculing her employees for their sinful habit of loving carbs.

Many will try to liken Hall’s Jordan to Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestley in a misguided effort to declare all mean female bosses basically the same. And while both have the power to terrify their employees by simply arriving at the office, Regina Hall brings with her a much stronger sense of having earned her way to the top. Because we’ve seen a glimpse of past horrors, Hall also evokes an unexpected empathy. Unlike other Mean Boss Ladies, her impending dance with a life-changing, personality-restoring twist of fate feels more deserved.

Jordan’s company, JSI, is a tech firm in Atlanta. Their primary niche is in app and web development, a market that has helped Jordan amass a tidy fortune. When her biggest, wealthiest client announces he is looking to switch to a new developer, she finds herself in a desperate situation. She is not desperate enough, however, to listen to a pitch from her long-suffering assistant, April (Issa Rae). In the middle of an epic tantrum, Jordan is hit with a curse that transforms her back into her 13-year-old self, turning this story into a sort of “Big” in reverse.

Jordan’s journey gives us more time with charming and hilarious Marsai Martin, who at just 14 is already a force in the industry. She has learned from great performers on the set of “Black-ish,” sharpening her skills alongside Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross. “Little” is based on a story idea Martin first pitched at age 10. In addition to a starring role, she also snagged herself an Executive Producer credit and a first look deal with Universal. In her first major film role, Martin’s comic timing is impeccable, her ability to deliver a withering glance or a perfect insult is as strong as many a seasoned pro. She also brings a lot of vulnerability to a role that could otherwise have been played only for laughs.

Issa Rae is also her very funny self as the overworked and underappreciated assistant who suddenly finds herself in a position of power over her employer. Her character feels a bit underdeveloped, and there are a lot of lingering questions. Why, exactly, does April stick around to suffer Jordan’s abuse? Is the job really worth it? But even with those unclear elements, Rae is a great foil to both Hall and Martin.

Tone Bell, Luke James, and Justin Hartley each play various handsome men who do little more than supporting the women in the story. Which is exactly what handsome men in a story about women should do. Of the three, Bell has the most robust character, while James enjoys the best arc, and Hartley inexplicably vanishes after two scenes, one of which set up a potentially interesting plot that ultimately goes nowhere.

Which brings us to the strange paradox of “Little.” This movie is very funny. It is also unexpectedly tender and heartwarming. Yet there is something missing. Many elements of Tracy Oliver‘s script don’t necessarily feel like they come together quite as well as they could. Certain ideas are introduced and then dashed. Director Tina Gordon constructs some scenes that go longer than they should while leaving out others that should exist. A lot of moments, conversations, and structural elements just don’t quite fit together. And yet, the finished work is so funny that it’s hard not to just sit back and enjoy.

“Little” is an entertaining movie that promotes women on the screen and behind the scenes. Gordon and Oliver provide a needed voice for women, and especially women of color. The message may not be new, but the messengers are, and it would behoove us all to listen.

“Little” is distributed by Universal Pictures and is now in theaters.

GRADE: (★★★)

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