Little made headlines long before it hit theaters as it was famously executive-produced by 14-year-old Marsai Martin (Black-ish), also playing the lead as Little Jordan Sanders, with a premise that should be familiar to anyone who remembers the glut of body-swap movies of the 1980s. Think Tom Hanks’ Big, only in reverse. And not as funny.
With a recurring theme of identity and staying true to yourself, no matter how hard the world tries to break you down, mixed with the body/swap premise, the results could be interesting. We’ve seen such a potentially interesting genre done countless times, and with mixed results. Classics like Big and Freaky Friday are beloved for good reason, and even more recent efforts like 13 Going on 30 have their fans. Little just misses the mark, unfortunately, both conceptually and in its execution.
Things start off promisingly – the concept is familiar, yet still ripe for reinvention. As a successful business woman in the male-dominated world of tech, Jordan Sanders (Regina Hall) has let money and power go to her head, becoming a mean and demanding boss to everyone around her, including her wannabe boyfriend Preston (Tone Bell). Things get interesting when Jordan meets a little girl who uses her “magic wand” to wish that Jordan was little again. No one believes anything will happen – until the next morning when, much to Jordan’s surprise and horror, she wakes up in her 13-year-old body with crazy hair and big glasses.
This couldn’t happen at a worse time for Jordan’s company, which is on the verge of losing their biggest client. Now Little Jordan must depend on her poor assistant April (Issa Rae), who Big Jordan regularly chewed out and disparaged, to run things when Child Services Agent Bea (Rachel Dratch) requires Little Jordan to attend school. There she meets handsome teacher Mr. Marshall (Justin Hartley), and is quickly relegated to the losers club where she makes friends with those she attempts to convince are better off hiding who they are rather than showing off at an upcoming talent competition.
All the familiar pieces are there, just waiting to entertain us. Unfortunately, this goodwill quickly descends into cheesy jokes that barely crack a smile. Marsai Martin is a talented young actress and should continue pursuing that talent at full speed, while leaving the executive producing to those who understand the concept of storytelling a little better. In fact, her presence shone so brightly on screen that it sometimes overpowered the more subdued Issa Rae. If not for Rae’s loud and outrageous outfits, she might have disappeared completely whenever she shares screentime with Martin.
Perhaps the strangest highlight of the film was Justin Hartley, and it was unfortunate his presence wasn’t utilized better as de’s a complete natural on the big screen. From the way he sways around hallway corners to the awkward scenes he shares with Martin’s character in the classroom Hartley gave the film an excitement that seemed to evaporate (along with his character) whenever he wasn’t there. What’s more baffling is how his character doesn’t seem to serve any purpose, other than to show an adult women in a teenage body hitting on a grown man, which was just awkward and not funny at all.
Regina King stood out as the adult version of Jordan Sanders, giving her employees hell when giving hell was necessary (and sometimes not). Everything about her screamed “rich bitch”, from her piercing eyes to her expressive body language embodied confidence in her own persona. This aspect of the film totally worked, though would quickly become, ironically, also its most frustrating.
As an adult, Jordan Sanders was a strong woman, a believable and logical figure in the competitive world of tech. However, much of the writing for Little Jordan only reduced this oversized personality, much like her “little” counterpart, to teenage stereotypes, making it feel more like a bad slumber party than a real comedy. I understand the need to contrast both the physical and emotional differences between an adult and teenage Jordan, and the literal concept of being taken down a peg couldn’t be clearer. But this needs to be more than just a superficial study
Director Tina Gordon (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Tracy Oliver) also missed the mark, and maybe the point. Scenes are jumbled together almost haphazardly, making both the story and its meaning difficult to follow. Take when Little Jordan is sitting at a booth one moment and the next she’s laying on a bar, singing with a bread roll as a microphone. Even crazier, we then see April joining her and also using a bread roll to singalong. While their singing voices were great, the way this scene was handled made what could have been an sincere moment feel more like a mockery than a testament to their real talents.
What’s most disappointing about Little isn’t its familiar story, performances, or themes of acceptance, but in how none of these things ever come together successfully. Marsai Martin is an impressive actress – though her executive-producing skills leave much to be desired. What really trips the film up is just how amateurish the writing and direction felt, neither of which felt inspired or made any real attempt to find the center of its own message. It’s not often we see a movie so openly crib from its influences, as though its producers had classics like Big, Freaky Friday and others playing on a loop during its production. You’d be better off saving your money and watching any of them instead.