Film Review – Little
Ebenezer Scrooge may have started out as a money hungry monster, but Jordan Sanders (Regina Hall) – the protagonist of Little (2019) – is a whole other beast. She may be the wealthy CEO of a startup company, but she runs it with the iron fist of a dictator. Her demands are that of a crazy person, forcing her loyal assistant April (Issa Rae) to bend to her every whim. Jordan expects April to organize her home so that her slippers are a certain distance away from her bed. In the office she orders employees to work like diligent mice, with the thought of “having fun” never entering her vocabulary. She verbally abuses everyone, cuts to the front of the line at the coffee stand, and erupts like a volcano whenever any carb-filled food is within her sightline.
Oh, and did I mention this is a comedy? Director Tina Gordan (who co-wrote the script with Tracy Oliver) fashions this narrative like a mix between A Christmas Carol and Freaky Friday (2003). Our lead character comes to the realization of how cruel and unusual they are while dealing with a magical curse that transforms her into the thirteen-year-old version of herself (played by Marsai Martin). And so, with Jordan caught up in her predicament, April must run the company in her absence while Jordan deals with the biggest obstacle of her life: being a teenager again.
Regina Hall and Marsai Martin deserve praise for really committing to the Jordan character. Both seem to be having a blast in the part, being as outlandish as they want. And boy, do they really lean into her attitude. Jordan – throughout the first half of the film and the majority of the second – is really mean to everyone around her. Gordon and Oliver try to set up her personality by establishing a childhood embarrassment that fuels her anger, but the effect backfires. Jordan’s incessant determination to put down everyone really makes her off putting. You would think that being bullied as a child would help her understand the importance of treating others with respect, but instead it inspires a spiteful bitterness. It makes one wonder how she could have become so successful given how awful she treats people.
Some of the better moments have nothing to do with Jordan. In fact, Issa Rae comes forth as the surprise, shining in almost every scene that she’s in. April has tons of personality, talent, and potential, but being Jordan’s assistant has filled her with an enormous amount of self-doubt. It’s the balance of knowing her worth and the fear of taking a risk that draws our attention to April. Rae also gets the majority of the laughs, spouting one-liners with an excellent comedic timing. The way she very discreetly mentions her availability to any good-looking man was hilarious. Issa Rae was the saving grace here, and I hope to see her in more high-profile roles.
The main plot is a mish mash of underdeveloped side stories and character arcs that don’t really go any place significant. Because Jordan was changed to a kid, she and April are visited by a Child Protective Services agent (Rachel Dratch) who orders Jordan to go to school. Dratch shows up in one scene, and the danger of Jordan being taken away is barely an afterthought. Back in school, Jordan meets three kids (Tucker Meek, Thalia Tran, JD McCrary) who all want to participate in the big talent show, but Jordan’s childhood trauma causes her to dissuade them from performing. Take a wild guess how that turns out? There’s also the complication of Jordan’s on again/off again boyfriend (Luke James) who comes home wondering where the adult of the house has gone off to, but just like everything else, that story doesn’t really have any weight or impact.
The editing has some really odd choices. During a scene in which Jordan and April have a chat at a restaurant, their conversation cuts in mid-sentence to showcase a musical number where Jordan and April sing Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Goin’ Down.” Look, I love musicals, and I’m all for characters breaking out into song to express themselves. But this scene is badly forced into the narrative, sticking out like a sore thumb without any proper explanation or context. Plus, seeing a teenage girl performing the song while doing a dance routine on top of a bar comes off as awkward and uncomfortable. Sure, the moment is supposed to make us laugh, but I think the effect is more of a nervous one than anything else.
We’ve seen this type of story before, and most of us can deduce where things will inevitably go. But Jordan’s emotional realization comes way too late, and the supposed “redemption” feels like a cop out. This is a person whose insecurity has brought about a lack of maturity, and by the time she understands that, the damage has already been done. There’s no gradual development – don’t show us a terrible person for such a long time and then suddenly expect us to believe that she can right all her wrongs in the time it takes to toast some bread. Little may want to be a redemption story of a bad character doing good, but instead it ends up rewarding the bully.