Film Review: Little (US, 2019) is a big disappointment

Just one week after the superhero genre gave us a Big-style blockbuster with Shazam!, we’re being offered up a by-the-numbers reverse version. Taking inspiration from the Tom Hanks classic, Little flips the age transformation and genre of its protagonist, which, for better or worse, is mildly refreshing.  By all accounts, this was the brainchild of young star Marsai Martin, who pitched the idea after seeing Big for the first time at the age of 10 and thus now becomes the youngest executive producer in Hollywood history, making your 10-year-old look entirely lazy.

It’s a charming backstory to a film that’s sadly fairly predictable and disappointingly flat. Amusing enough to keep its audience relatively entertained, Little wears out its welcome before we’re even halfway through the film. With an impressive cast of wonderful talent who all try their absolute hardest to elevate this tepid screenplay, the film becomes enormously frustrating, as we endure witnessing great performers tasked with such subpar material. When all is said and done, Little is a big waste of time and talent.

Beginning with a prologue set in 1993, we meet 13-year-old Jordan Sanders (Martin) as she prepares to showcase her impressive scientific mind at her high school’s talent show. After a cruel prank by the school’s biggest bully leaves Jordan mercifully embarrassed, she makes the conscious decision to become a boss in her adult life because “nobody bullies the boss.” Cut to present day, and adult Jordan (an underused Regina Hall) is now the powerful, ice queen CEO of her own tech company, Jordan Sanders Innovations.

Taking a leaf out of the Miranda Priestly mean boss guidebook, Jordan cuts a terrifying figure every time she enters her office building, causing all her employees to scurry in fear. Most incurring of Jordan’s wrath is her beleaguered (and overqualified) assistant April (Issa Rae), who is yelled at on a daily basis, especially if something isn’t to Jordan’s specific instructions like her slippers being an inch off their required measurement away from her bed in the morning. April is so terrified of her boss, she’s too petrified to pitch her own idea for an innovative app that could prove a goldmine for the company.

During a particularly stressful work crisis, Jordan harshly bullies a young black girl who likes to practice magic tricks outside her office (who she hilariously refers to as “chocolate Hogwarts”). With the flick of her wand, the wannabe magician wishes Jordan knew was it was like to be little and powerless. For reasons unknown, the spell works and Jordan awakens the next morning back in her nerdy 13-year-old body. After a minor freakout, she manages to convince April of the age reversal, leaving April to unwillingly assume the role of legal guardian of an apparent teenager and stand-in CEO in Jordan’s absence.

When Child Protective Services are called by a concerned neighbour, Jordan is forced to return to the same high school of her childhood, where she finds school life is still just as difficult and tough for those who find themselves branded as unpopular. Finding a group of equally misfit teens, Jordan sees an opportunity to potentially inspire this next generation of future leaders who can potentially learn to navigate the halls with a little more confidence and courage than she ever had.

At its heart, Little achingly wants to be a message film, but what that message is gets consistently muddled along the way. There was a chance here to explore the harshness of the teenage 21st-century experience and the culture of bullying that’s permeating through the schoolyard. That chance sadly goes begging. The screenplay by Tracy Oliver and Tina Gordon touches on the damaging effect harassment and victimisation can have on youngsters, but it never fully embraces this idea enough to make an impact. Instead, its core message seems to centre around the idea that being mean to people is wrong. But we’re consistently shown the bountiful riches that have come from Jordan’s life of being a bully, so it’s hard to swallow the advice this film attempts to preach.

An adult acting like a child/teenager is inherently peculiar, which allows films like Big or 13 Going on 30 to play on many humorous fish-out-of-water scenarios and situations. Outside of a children’s television show, you just don’t see adults goofily behaving like children. That’s why the concept can be so wonderfully entertaining in a piece of cinema. While its admirable of Little to flip this well-worn trope, the concept simply doesn’t work as effectively when reversed. These days, teenagers begin walking, talking, and acting like adults even before puberty hits, so the entire conceit of Little just isn’t as outlandishly hilarious as its reverse inspiration because it’s ultimately not particularly strange.

Sure, there are several initial moments after Jordan’s transformation that provide a few inspired laughs. To the horror of a Child Protective Services agent (Rachel Dratch, horribly wasted), Jordan wants to crack open a bottle of rosé at 8 o’clock in the morning. When she first arrives back at her high school, Jordan seemingly forgets her exterior appearance and blatantly flirts with her handsome teacher (Justin Hartley, typecast as the generic hunk, yet again), whose horrified and confused reaction is probably the best thing in the entire film. And seeing the bitchy attitude and demeanour of the adult Jordan in the body of a geeky-looking teenager is good campy fun. But the gimmick wears off very quickly, even in the hands of such an inspired young performer like Martin.

The young actress is saddled with essentially carrying this film, which is simply too much to ask for the teenager. She tried earnestly to pull this film together, but the film drags considerably once Hall leaves the screen and it’s impossible not to ache for her return, even though we know it’s likely still a good hour away. While Hall and Rae’s initial interactions flow perfectly, Martin and Rae never quite click the way they’re supposed to and it’s hard to know who we’re really meant to be cheering for here. Rae is delightful as the desperate and downtrodden assistant, but even she can’t save this film. Hall is wasted in a role that does nothing more than bookend the start and finish of the narrative, and you can’t help but wonder if sticking to the young-to-old concept of Big may not have worked more effectively.

A comedy like this lives and dies by its humour. For every joke in Little that lands, there are ten that don’t. The impeccable comedic timing of Rae and Hall are completely underutilised, which is a mighty big shame. An impromptu musical performance of Mary J Blige’s “I’m Going Down” is jarringly out of place, even if Martin and Rae give it their absolute all. But it’s a transphobic joke early on in the piece that really stands out as bafflingly misguided. In an attempt to showcase just how nasty Jordan has become, the screenplay forces Hall to cruelly misgender a young girl and makes a crass joke about her “transitioning.” In 2019, this humour has no place in cinema, shock value or not. Hall deserves better than this and so do audiences.

The shining light of Little is to showcase a glimpse of greater things to come for its young star. If given greater material, Martin certainly has the goods to become an impressive talent in an industry crying out for diversity in its casting. The film is a well-intentioned attempt to capture the experience of a young black girl, both in the past and present. But it handles everything so poorly and leaves very little impression. It’s a sweet film let down by its overall shallowness. The narrative of Little runs around in circles for 108 minutes and never really arrives anywhere. For a film pitched as a laugh-out-loud comedy, it’s ultimately rather exhausting.


Little is in cinemas now.