little review

Little plays like a movie created in a boardroom. It’s as if a group of executives who have been on the Internet twice brainstormed the idea for a movie: People love Big, they love Girls Trip, they love Issa Rae, and they love endless references to memes. But put that all together, and you’ve got an incoherent mess of a movie that is barely held together by brightly colored tape and a charismatic cast.

Directed by Tina Gordon Chism and produced by the writer of Girls TripLittle has all the elements, and some of the cast members, it needs to replicate the success of the raunchy 2017 comedy hit. But lightning doesn’t strike twice for Little, no matter how much magic it tries to work.

If there’s anyone who with the ability to work a little magic on Little, it’s Girls Trip star Regina Hall. As the nasty, caustic, tough-as-nails tech mogul Jordan Sanders, Hall is game to be as goofy and grumpy as the role calls for — dialing up her Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada impression to 11 in her abusive tirades against her employees, while still engaging in a little light slapstick. She even shows glimmers of vulnerability and sensuality, hints of a deeper persona that we barely get to see when she insults the wrong girl (Marley Taylor) and gets turned into her 13-year-old self (Marsai Martin). By depriving us of Hall’s over-the-top mugging and her incredible chemistry with her mistreated assistant April (Issa Rae), Little gets some of the wind taken out of its sails.

Issa Rae, in her first major feature film role, does her darndest to keep the boat afloat. As Jordan’s timid assistant who begrudgingly accepts years of verbal use, Rae’s April is overjoyed upon learning that Jordan has been turned into a preteen. Rae is a delight to watch onscreen, though her natural, buoyant charisma sometimes threatens to overtake her character, who seems to be written as more meek than Rae portrays her. But Rae manages to establish chemistry with both Hall and Martin, making the transition between older and younger Jordan’s fairly seamless.

The rest of the movie belongs to Marsai Martin, who shows signs of promise as the young Jordan Sanders — both as an idealistic, science-minded young girl who gets an attitude change after a particularly bad bullying incident (and a full-body cast), and as the pompous body-changed version of Jordan forced to relive the worst years of her life. However, the movie asks too much of her, and she isn’t able to achieve the comedic heights that Hall had just half an hour before. Martin shines the most when she gets to channel Jordan’s most shameless tendencies — her wordless flirtation with the hot teacher (Justin Hartley) as he tries to ward off her advances is one of the funniest sequences of the film. But just like most of the threads in the film, that subplot goes nowhere and Hot Teacher is rarely to be seen again.

Despite its title, Little is big in ambition, attempting to tackle at least four different movies in one. But the problem is that none of these different subplots get resolved in a satisfying fashion.  The workplace comedy, in which Jordan loosens her iron grip on her company to allow her employees, especially April, to flourish, is a feebly constructed arc that gets resolved far too quickly. The film flirts with the premise of Never Been Kissed, only to forget its Hot Teacher, and touches too on a romantic arc with a spurned boyfriend (Luke James, going full cringe comedy with an impressively go-for-broke performance), who feels too cartoonish to be a real character. The only subplot that the film spends both too much time with, and not enough, is the back-to-school arc, in which Jordan finds herself befriending a group of misfit middle schoolers who are painfully stereotypical.

I can’t fault the child actors (Tucker Meek, Thalia Tran, Marley Taylor) for being stilted in their roles, as the script doesn’t seem to understand what children are. The bullies, who seem like they emerged right out of an ’80s teen comedy, are unnaturally cruel, and the kids too strangely blasé about their mistreatment that none of the emotional beats land. It feels like an adult’s approximation of a middle school.

Meanwhile, Jordan’s tech company feels like an alien’s approximation of a workplace. With Jordan forced to return to middle school or risk April’s imprisonment for child endangerment, April is forced to take the lead at the company, which is working down to the wire to keep its biggest client, Connor (a chaotically memorable Mikey Day), who is a ludicrous caricature of every privileged white Silicon Valley male. But as April gets a taste for the empowering position of leadership, she and Jordan clash, putting in peril their already tenuous friendship.

The idea of a reverse Big is an appealing one, but in sticking so closely to its premise, Little forgets what made Big such a success in the first place: It was about the reaffirmation of the joy and innocence of childhood. Little doesn’t have so simple of a message — it has several, none of which are fully followed through on. The power of friendship, the power of vulnerability, the power of self-confidence. The power of a good makeover, maybe? While Little is a relatively inoffensive comedy buoyed by a talented cast, it can’t bring together its lofty ideas. But that would have been no small feat.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10

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