★★ / ★★★★
The fantasy-comedy “Little” begins with an exclamation point. As a smart and financially successful but extremely unpleasant—to say the least—leader of a tech company, Regina Hall nails the role of Jordan Sanders despite appearing on screen for less than fifteen minutes. We are immediately made to understand why her employees attempt to clear out the moment they hear her voice screeching from the parking lot. Although her ruthlessness is played for big laughs, it is apparent there is more to the character than a caricature who must learn a valuable lesson by the end of the story following her unexpected—if not karmic—magical physical transformation to her pre-teen years. But the screenplay by Tracy Oliver and Tina Gordon, the latter directing the picture, fails to construct a consistently razor-sharp comedy. There are significantly more laughs to be had at the workplace than at school.
As pre-teen Jordan, I enjoyed Marsai Martin’s enthusiasm for the role. She delivers her lines with effervescent personality, she isn’t afraid to trust the physical comedy, and she shines during a few of the more dramatic moments that the plot demands. Her role, however, is not supported by strong writing—which will be quickly apparent to those who felt or considered themselves to be outcasts in middle school. For those of us who belong in this group, this is a time of our lives that involves pain, insecurity, and humiliation. While the screenplay acknowledges this on the surface, it is seemingly afraid to dig deeply into specifics.
Being bullied is introduced: for not looking a certain way, for not wearing the right clothes, for not fitting in with the popular group. But there is more to it than that—within and outside the scope of the film. I argue that the more interesting avenue to have explored would have been being shamed or ostracized for being smart or intellectually curious. The movie, after all, opens at a talent show where Jordan attempts to communicate her love for science in the form of a physics demonstration. She hopes that showing them who she is, she would gain a modicum of social acceptance.
Thus, the work is guilty for delivering safe comedy, unapologetic, at times brazen, for traversing paths that have been traveled hundreds of times prior. Original or fresh ideas are few and far between; when we do come upon them, they are not delved into. An example involves Jordan’s assistant, April (Issa Rae—her luminous smile uplifting the room without fail), who has a great idea for a game app but her confidence is not as great as her idea. It would have been a more rewarding experience had the writing focused more on the parallels between pre-teen Jordan and April. Instead, we get forced humor like a visit from Social Services in which characters are forced to stutter and come up with lies. Similar scenes are not only unfunny, they are a waste of time.
There are also instances when the filmmakers forget their intended target audience. Obviously, children would wish to see the picture. About a third of the movie unfolds at school. And yet there are questionable scenarios like a striptease. There are one too many awkward humor like a child touching an adult body in a sexual way. Sexually suggestive dialogue is also present. Yes, an argument can be made that there is indeed a way to insert these things in a family film. But they must not always be front and center. They must be done in a subtle way so that adults recognize them and children remain none the wiser. Subtlety is not in the film’s toolkit.