Film Review: Marsai Martin in ‘Little’

Long before America’s childhood bullying epidemic made headlines, Hollywood had taken the issue to heart, making it a standard ingredient of YA films to condemn the mistreatment of misfits by mean girls, jocks, rich kids, and cool cliques. But the movies have largely ignored the reverse phenomenon, in which those who once identified as outcasts grow up to become perpetrators of an even worse kind of conduct when they get big. One need look no further than Silicon Valley (or Hollywood, for that matter) to see how some personalities use whatever wealth and power they acquire as adults to avenge the abuse they endured in their early years.

Well, “Little” lets such bullies have it, addressing precisely that problem via the tried-and-true body-transformation genre — which has given us teens in adult bodies (“13 Going on 30,” “Big”), adults in teen bodies (“17 Again,” “Camille Rewinds”), and parents and kids trading places (“Freaky Friday,” “Vice Versa”), with seemingly infinite variations on the formula. Well, not exactly infinite: Until now, the genre in question has been predominately white, which makes “Little” different from nearly all the body-swap farces that have come before in that it features people of color in the key roles.

Consistently funny if all-around a bit too familiar — and by extension, a bit too comfortable with its own plot holes and logic gaps — “Little” focuses on a budding nerd named Jordan Sanders (played by “Black-ish” actress Marsai Martin at age 13) whose self-confidence is derailed when a white girl humiliates her in front of the entire class at the middle school talent show: Just imagine if someone had dumped a bucket of water on Akeelah at the bee, how she might have grown up with a chip on her shoulder. In Jordan’s case, from that traumatic moment forward, she vows to become rich and successful so she can get back at her tormentors, because “nobody bullies the boss.”

Cut to Jordan today: Now embodied by Regina Hall, she’s worse than Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly, insulting strangers, making life miserable for her assistant April (Issa Rae), and demoralizing the rest of her employees with a constant stream of verbal and physical abuse — until one day, an adolescent not unlike the one she used to be stands up to her. Brandishing a magic wand, the girl wishes that Jordan were little so she could no longer get away with such behavior. And presto, the next morning, Hall has been transformed back into Martin (who hatched the idea for the movie), complete with the Coke-bottle glasses and wild head of hair that made her such an easy target the first time she was 13.

“Little” fits so comfortably within its genre that the screenplay — which director Tina Gordon wrote with Tracy Oliver (one of three credited on the far raunchier “Girls Trip”) — doesn’t even bother to explain how the magic curse works, relying on the fact that audiences have by now seen enough body-swap movies to know that Jordan must learn some kind of lesson before she’ll be allowed to change back into her “old” self. The movie wastes almost no effort on reversing the spell, to the extent that April delegates the task of tracking down the girl who wished it to the interns. Rather, it relishes the idea of making Jordan relive the most agonizing time of her life: eighth grade.

By establishing Jordan as the most outrageous kind of tyrant, “Little” leaves plenty of room to humble her later, beginning with the idea that she now relies on her undervalued assistant April to act as her legal guardian. So many of Jordan’s comforts — her designer wardrobe, her BMW sports car, and especially her habit of unwinding with a nice bottle of rosé — are off-limits to her now that she looks like a minor. At the same time, her curt way of interacting with the neighbors comes back to bite her when the woman next door calls Shild Protective Services (in the form of “Saturday Night Live” alum Rachel Dratch), resulting in a legal order for Jordan to re-enroll in the same middle school where she had been treated so badly before — by a girl who looks exactly like the insidious cheerleader from her past (both rivals are played by Eva Carlton).

Jordan’s situation may seem like torture at first, but it also offers her a unique kind of opportunity: Going back knowing what she does now, she can better navigate the period that was so difficult the first time around. That dynamic makes for some of “Little’s” more entertaining sequences — as when she flirts with her teacher (Justin Hartley), or when she digs a hot pink pantsuit from her closet that turns heads at school (costumes are key here, as characters often treat their clothes as the source of their confidence, especially during the film’s inevitable makeover montage).

Though frustrated that all her pilates and plastic surgery have gone to waste, the situation does allow Jordan to get back in touch with that sense of fearlessness she felt when she was younger, sparking a spontaneous (if somewhat inexplicable) performance of Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down” in a hotel bar — and later, the chance to improve upon her earlier crash-and-burn talent-show performance, along with fellow rejects Riana (Thalia Tran), Isaac (JD McCrary), and Devon (Tucker Meek).

Issa Rae serves as the constant through all of these experiences, as April is the one person Jordan trusts to help her navigate the transformation. Best known for HBO’s “Insecure,” Rae has appeared in a couple minor movie roles prior to this, but “Little” marks her big-screen break, and the affably awkward actress makes the most of it — as does her character, using her boss’s misfortune to renegotiate her own underappreciated position, and pitch an app that allows users to see the world through a child’s eyes.

Oddly, that’s something the movie doesn’t try to do itself, preferring to approach childhood through the lens of adult experience — which makes Marsai Martin’s performance all the more impressive when you think about it: Rather than simply imitating the mannerisms Hall displayed as her older self, Martin convincingly suggests that her adolescent body is inhabited by a woman who believes she’s paid her dues, and is therefore thoroughly annoyed when the grown-ups around her no longer respond to her every command. Don’t worry, the movie won’t let things go back to normal until Jordan has learned her lesson — that even good kids can grow up to be bullies — which the movie awkwardly articulates over its closing scene, lest we miss it: “There will always be people out there who don’t want you to live your best life. The trick is not becoming one of them.”

Film Review: Marsai Martin in 'Little'

Reviewed at Arclight Hollywood, Los Angeles, April 8, 2019. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 109 MIN.

Production:A Universal Pictures release, presented with Legendary Pictures, in association with Perfect World Pictures of a Will Packer Prods. production. Producers: Will Packer, Kenya Barris, James Lopez. Executive producers: Marsai Martin, Josh Martin, Regina Hall, Preston Holmes.

Crew:Director: Tina Gordon. Screenplay: Tracy Oliver, Gordon; story: Oliver. Camera (color): Greg Gardiner; editor: David Mortiz; music: Germaine Franco.

With:Regina Hall, Issa Rae, Marsai Martin, Justin Hartley, Tracee Ellis Ross, Tone Bell, JD McCrary, Tucker Meek, Thalia Tran, Marley Taylor, Eva Carlton, Luke James, Rachel Dratch.

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