Just because Little is small, that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed. Yes, you’ve seen the movie with, as critic Nathan Rabin called it, “the metaphysical bonk” that transforms a character in a magical way so they’re forced to reevaluate their entire life in order to deal with their outsized circumstances and grow as a person. But while Tina Gordon Chism’s movie is a little predictable and a little familiar, that doesn’t mean it’s unenjoyable. Little has a nice message about how the bullied become bullies themselves, and how those defense mechanisms mean that we never get the joy of just being ourselves. It’s a movie with a lot of sympathy and a lot of charm that largely works thanks to its outstanding lead actresses. You may be able to map out the plot beats of Little before you even step in the theater, but you’ll still enjoy seeing them in action thanks to the solid jokes and strong performances.
As a teenager (Marsai Martin), Jordan Sanders was bullied by her classmates, and resolved to become a boss when she was an adult so no one could ever bully her again. Now that she’s an adult (Regina Hall), Jordan is the bully and treats the employees at her tech company, JSI, horribly. No one gets Jordan’s abuse worse than her assistant, April Williams (Issa Rae), but Jordan’s life gets turned upside down when a young girl she bullies casts a spell on her to make her “little”. Jordan wakes up the next morning back in her teenage body and must fully rely on April to manage the company while Jordan has to navigate middle school again.
Hall lights up the screen in the first twenty minutes to the point where you’re almost bummed that she’ll be gone for most of the movie. She plays Jordan with such ferocity and nastiness yet never becomes grotesque or repulsive in the process. She’s a comically terrifying bully, not intended to earn our sympathy but to give Jordan a place from where she can be a better person. The contours of Hall’s performance then make way for Martin—who also came up with the idea for Little after seeing Big—and she is delightful in the role of an angry woman in not only a 13-year-old’s body, but being forced to live with how much she hated being thirteen. It’s not that Martin is acting “beyond her years” as much as she does an excellent job of conveying Jordan’s irritation and aloofness.
Tying it all together is Rae, who makes the most of every moment on screen to the point where I was actively cursing myself for not getting around to her HBO series Insecure. She just has the comic timing and uniqueness of the greats where you know that you could watch her in just about everything and she’s going to knock it out of the park. Rae finds unique angles on the jokes and reactions that make the character exist as more than just comic relief or background to Jordan’s story. This is really about the friendship between Jordan and April, and you buy both of them despite their impossible circumstances.
Where Little struggles is in trying to find a way to break free from predictability until it just decides to settle in Jordan’s arc of becoming a better person and imparting a message that if you were bullied and grow up to be a bully, your bully still has power over you. It’s a nice little bromide about being true to yourself, and if that works for the target audience of tweens who come out to see Little, then I have no problem with that. But with such a thin premise, you can really start to feel Little start to collapse under its runtime. There’s really no reason for a movie this light to be almost two hours, and if the pacing were a bit more fleetfooted, it would help match the upbeat tone and comedy.
If you’re a dude in his 30s like me, then you are not the target audience for Little (this is more than okay; far too many movies are made for dudes in their 30s). But I was still won over by what the film was going for even if it’s predictable and overlong. It’s hard to come down too harshly on a movie that has its heart in the right place and also provides a showcase for Martin, Rae, and Hall. It probably won’t become a classic like Big, but Little still does right by its inspiration and makes for a good time at the movies for younger audiences.