Oh man, Little could’ve been big. All the components are there: a truly stellar cast, led by Regina Hall, Issa Rae, and the preternaturally precocious Marsai Martin. A cute concept: Boss from hell gets magically turned back into her 13-year-old self, and must come to terms with why she became such a jerk in the first place. Fun fashion, cheery sets, beautiful people. Even a feel-good real life origin story: It was young Martin who pitched the concept—a clever reverse take on the Tom Hanks vehicle Big—to the studio and serves as one of the film’s executive producers.
But I’m afraid to say that Little is something of a hot mess. Granted, an intermittently entertaining mess, but a mess all the same. Storylines are introduced and go nowhere, conspicuous continuity errors abound, bad jokes land with a thud, and character motivations are sketchy at best. I sense this is one of those films that was taken apart and entirely stitched back together in an editing room, which happens more often than you might think. The thing is, we’re not supposed to notice the seams.
When we first meet Jordan (Martin), she’s enthusiastically showcasing a science project at a middle school assembly. A mean girl heckles, then humiliates her. Jordan ends up both injured and mortified—and vows to never allow herself to be vulnerable again.
Fast forward 25 years and Jordan (Hall) is now the millionaire owner of an app development company who makes Miranda Priestly seems like the boss of the year. She’s bullying, demanding, and committed to making her workplace a joy free zone (she doesn’t even allow carbs in the office). Her employees, including her put-upon personal assistant April (Rae), fear and loathe her. One day, she’s mean to a little girl who’s a budding a magician and the child puts a spell on her: “I wish you were little!” she shouts.
Suddenly, our glamorous, Ferrari-driving Jordan is a geeky tweenage girl with messy hair, glasses, and bad fashion. She also must rely on April—the only person who knows what happened—to help her navigate her new identity.
So far so good, right? But here’s where the movie goes wrong. A visit from child social services means Jordan must go back to school—the horror!—where she inappropriately flirts with a dreamy teacher (Justin Hartley) and meets three sweet, nerdy kids, who embrace her into their band of cafeteria outcasts. But the school scenes—essentially the crux of the whole film—are woefully underwritten. “Young” Jordan has no arc. She likes the nerdy kids and they like her right back. Even once she goes on a shopping spree and comes back to school looking fierce and fabulous, gaining the approval of this generation’s mean girl, she doesn’t dump her new squad, as you might expect. Instead, she takes them back to her fabulous apartment and they have a party, with lots of fashion changes, silly poses, and Instagram selfies. Fun, yes. But who is this person? The adult Jordan we met was never this fun or this kind. It seems that Jordan internalized the important lesson of the film—that you can be both successful and good without dimming your shine—through osmosis.
The film’s most cringy moment occurs when April takes Jordan to a restaurant. April is guzzling rosé, which Jordan wants to drink but April tells her she can’t, for obvious reasons. The next thing you know, Jordan is on the bar singing karaoke, obviously drunk. My first guess, which many others speculated about on Twitter, was that the MPAA ratings board wouldn’t allow us to see a 13 year old drink in a PG-13 rated film—hence the herky jerky editing. There had to be a better way around this.
That scene is directly followed by another one that is nearly as cringy. Jordan’s sexy boy toy (Luke James) breaks into her condo and does an erotic dance as April and young Jordan watch with a mixture of amusement and shock. When the boy toy discovers Jordan, he assumes she’s Jordan’s daughter and promises to be a devoted father figure to her to prove his love to her mother. It’s awkward to say the least.
I could go on with the missteps, but I do want to take a few minutes to praise the performances. Hall commits thoroughly, and hilariously, to her HBIC persona. (Jordan’s horribleness is a way over the top caricature, even for a film this broad, but Hall has fun leaning into the awful.) As she proves on her Showtimes series Insecure, Issa Rae is a born rom-com heroine—funky, funny, and relatable (April actually does have a tiny romantic subplot but it’s—shocker—underdeveloped.) But the movie belongs to Martin, who is almost uncannily good as a 36 year old trapped in a 13-year-old’s body. Every withering comeback, every knowing glare, and every uncomfortably come-hither look she gives her hot teacher is delivered to perfection. You truly believe this child is 36. It’s enough to make me guardedly recommend the film. But, nonetheless, Little is no Big.