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Non-Review Review: Little

Little overcomes some big problems.

There are a number of very obvious flaws with Little. On a very superficial level, the film suffers from the problem that affects a lot of comedies. Little is simply not as funny as it thinks that it is. The jokes are not bad, and don’t fall flat, but also don’t land as efficiently as they might. Even beyond that, Little suffers from some very serious structural issues. The film has a short attention span, often allowing its focus to wander without a clear sense of purpose or motivation. More than that, Little often struggles to decide which of its two primary plots (and leads) to focus upon.

A Little goes a long way.

These are serious issues, and they prevent Little from working as well as it might otherwise. However, the film works much better than these issues would suggest. There is something surprisingly endearing about Little, a genial quality that prevents the film from ever crashing too hard. It isn’t just the relatively simple (bordering on simplistic) central thesis about childhood and playfulness, it is also the empathy that the film feels for most of its cast, especially those introduced as comedic fodder. Little is a very pleasant film, particularly by the standards of studio comedy.

However, the film’s ace in the hole is its fifteen-year-old star Marsai Martin, perhaps best known for her work on Blackish. Martin produced Little as a vehicle for her talent, and it is an effective showcase. Martin carries a surprising amount of the film with a surprisingly nuanced performance for what is a deliberately broad comedy. Martin is not only game for the film’s jokes, but also capable of handling the broad emotional range (and swift emotional transitions) that the script demands of her. Little might just be Martin’s big break.

Somebody’s assistant could use a pay bump.

Comedy is inherently subjective, and so it is hard to criticise a film for its sense of humour, to insist authoritatively that something is or is not funny. And, to be fair to Little, the problem with the film is not that it isn’t funny. The problem is that it is not funny enough. As with any comedy, there are a few jokes that do not work at all and a few that seem completely ill-judged. However, unlike Night School or What Men Want, there is never a sense that Little is being too lazy or too unambitious in its gags.

The film constantly throws out ideas and characters that are designed to keep the audience laughing. The film tries a number of different approaches, from slapstick physical comedy to jokes about inappropriate behaviour to the simple act of subverting expectations in stock scenes. There are a number of sequences in the film that work rather well; surprisingly-sensitive-boy-toy Trevor’s awkward attempt at a late-night seductive dance, forty-year-old-Jordan-trapped-in-a-thirteen-year-old body flirting with men, a plot device emboldened by her improbably powers.

However, none of these set-ups ever escalate to the point of laughter. Instead, they land squarely in mild amusement. In the film’s defense, there is something to be said for this. There are many studio comedies that would do very well to land consistently within the range of “mild amusement.” However, it is a relatively problem that a high-concept never quite lands a proper belly-laugh moment.

The film’s bigger issue exists in terms of plot. Little runs around an hour and forty-eight minutes, which is relatively long for a comedy. It is difficult to maintain humour across such a large stretch of time. Little often feels like it is working hard to fill the run time. This is most obvious in the structure of the movie, once Jordan Sanders is transformed into a child. The narrative effectively branches; one thread follows Jordan adjusting to life as a teenager and the other focusing on her assistant April stepping up to fill the gap.

Neither plot is particularly bad on its own terms. Jordan is learning an important lesson about a childhood that she denied herself, while April is learning the standard self-empowerment tropes that run through most modern studio comedies like Tag or Game Night. Neither premise is unworkable of itself. However, Little never seems to determine which character is the lead and which plot line is the focus. The title and the high-concept suggests that Jordan should be given centre-stage, but her scenes have lower stakes and the film spends more time on April’s inner life.

The issue with plotting extends beyond the two primary plot threads, operating almost on a scene-by-scene basis. Little frequently introduces a new character or concept, diverting attention from the plot elements that are already in play. Jordan simultaneously makes friends with the bullied kids at her school, tries to teach April how to run her company, flirts with a sexy teacher and reconciles with her booty call.

Not kidding around.

April is pitching an application that will allow the audience to see the world through the eyes of the child, despite the fact that this is Jordan’s arc, and learning to both assert herself and to connect with her boss on personal level. Interestingly, Little suggests no fewer than three potential romantic interests for April, even though her character arc is clearly only centred around one of those. Her awkward (“single, not desperate”) interactions with other characters dilute the focus.

There are two large problems with the film’s split focus. On the most superficial level, the film’s insistence on introducing new elements often feels like a clumsy attempt at misdirection, to cover the fact that it hasn’t actually pushed any individual ideas beyond their starting point. The bigger issue is that many of these elements could be cut (or trimmed) from with film without losing anything too valuable. There is perhaps a much tighter and more efficient ninety-minute cut of Little out there.

These are legitimate issues with Little. However, the film compensates in a number of ways. As messy as the actual plotting might be, the film maintains its thematic throughlines. It is always clear where both Jordan and Alice are going as characters. Segues and gags might momentarily distract from that, but the film typically ends up back on course eventually. There is a strong sense of where these characters are both coming from and going, even if how they will get there is occasionally muddled and confused.

More than that, Little is surprisingly endearing in its portrayal of its characters. Barring the stock high-school bullies and a delightfully on-the-nose tech bro who complains about his “struggle” to raise capital from his wealthy relatives, Little has a surprising reservoir of empathy for its characters. Even when these characters serve as the butt of a joke, Little seems to genuinely wish each of them well. This is most notable with fringe characters like Jordan’s boy-toy Trevor, who proves himself as sincere as he is stupid.

To certain degree, the film’s relative simplicity is a strength. There are moments when Little feels almost like a live action cartoon, such as when Jordan arrives at her office and staff flee desperately to avoid coming into her line of fire. “She’s coming!” some one yells. “Take cover!” The production design plays up this tendency. Trapped in a thirteen-year-old body, Jordan is frequently dressed in absurdly heightened haute culture clothing, often in strong shades. Costumer Danielle Hollowell does great work. This cartoonishness fits with the film’s very straightforward outlook.

Indeed, Little wears its influences very overtly. It is very much an update of Big, but in reverse. There are a few knowing hints of self-awareness. As with What Men Want, the movie is acutely aware of its status as a race-lifted inversion of an older movie. Much like What Men Want suggested its status as an unlikely studio comedy successor to blaxploitation cinema through the casting of Richard Roundtree as the protagonist’s father, Little acknowledges its status as an African-American-centric reworking of a beloved children’s classic through Jordan’s affection for The Wiz.

The last straw.

In Little, Jordan Sanders is the founder and chief executive of a tech start-up, who is cursed by “black girl magic” to revert to her thirteen-year-old self. That was the age at which Jordan decided that she would no longer be a victim of bullies and villains. The teaser sets this up rather bluntly, with Jordan hospitalised after a talent show demonstration is hijacked by a classmate. Jordan promises that she will no longer allow herself to be bullied. “I’m going to bully them first,” she vows.

As such, there’s a clear sense of the moral arc of Little. Jordan is effectively being offered a do-over, a chance to travel back in time and to live the childhood that she denied herself. There is something interesting in this. In some ways, it feels like an extension of the Apatowian arrested development genre, the twenty-first preoccupation with middle-aged Peters Pan, those manchildren who simply refused to grow up.

The past year has seen an explosion of movies that literalise the concept; Shazam! is a story about a superhero who is also a little boy, Unicorn Store is about a woman recapturing her childhood dream. Little is arguably just an extension of that core idea, the adult who dreams of escaping into childhood innocence. It is no surprise that Little stresses both Jordan’s absurd affluence and her financial vulnerability.

Millennials live in a world where “adult” has become a verb, often used ironically to suggest the trappings of adulthood that are challenges for a generation that was promised the world. Millennials were sold an idea of adulthood like that of their parents; home ownership, career stability, happy marriage. However, a generation that emerged during the twenty-first century has had to confront the reality that these things are no longer assured to them. Instead, students with massive college debt struggle to find the stability necessary to anchor themselves as adults.

In Little, Jordan is converted to a child just as her company’s largest customer and investor threatens to pull out. It is made very clear that this would be a massive loss for the company, potentially resulting in massive lay-offs. At the same time, Jordan struggles to open herself up to a relationship with a man who clearly loves her, in large part based on her crude calculation that he is a “starving artist.” Even in its crude and cartoonish way, Little understands that adult life is hard in a way that many children were never prepared to face.

As a result, the retreat back into childhood seems almost reasonable. Confronted with those harsh realities and denied those safe assurances, childhood offers a comfort and stability that is hard to find. As with Shazam! and Unicorn Store, Little taps into that desire to retreat from adult responsibility that reflects the experience of a generation that is finding it harder and harder to accomplish what society has determined to be the markers of adulthood; declining home ownership, falling marriage rates, decreased career stability. Adulting is hard, so maybe childhood might be better.

Hall pass.

Little also benefits from a fantastic central performance from Marsai Martin. Martin is fifteen years old, two years older than the character that she plays on screen. However, film has conditioned audiences to almost expect young adults in these teenage roles, and so Martin looks shockingly young. Martin produced Little as a starring vehicle, and it works as a showcase for her talents. So much of Little lives and dies on Martin’s ability to play both broad absurdity and a simple character arc, while nestled within a broad comic framework. She excels. Marsai Martin is one to watch.

It might not get all the way home, but Little goes a long way.

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