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Little ••1/2

Starring: Regina Hall, Issa Rae, Marsai Martin
Director: Tina Gordon
Screenplay: Tracy Oliver, Tina Gordon
Comedy/Fantasy/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Date: April 12, 2019


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, I’ve got a little favor to ask you. Can you review this next movie?

It’s no big deal, Scott. Let’s recap:

We meet 37-year-old Jordan Sanders (Regina Hall), the CEO of her own tech company. Jordan was bullied as a child and now believes that being a bully is the best way to be in charge of one’s life. She basically terrorizes everyone on her staff. One of her top clients needs an idea for a new big money-making app and threatens to leave Jordan’s company unless she comes us with an idea fast. One day Jordan bullies a small child, who uses a magic wand to cast a spell on Jordan, turning her into a 13-year-old middle-school kid.

In this new state, young Jordan (Marsai Martin) reaches out to her assistant, April (Issa Rae) to help her cope. But someone reports Jordan as being truant from school and she’s forced to return to middle school. Now, young Jordan’s back in the world of having to fit in, but looking like a gawky teen. She makes friends with the other bullied outcasts. Meanwhile, April has to take Jordan’s business by the horns and become the leader of a team of shell-shocked creatives. Now the stage is set: Will Jordan be able to help her new friends find their way and will April rise to the challenge of saving the company from ruin.

Greg, Little is a pleasant little comedy that capitalizes on an idea made big by the 1988 movie Big and the 2003 film Freaky Friday. It’s the old gimmick of adults and kids switching bodies. I think it’s safe to say that those two older movies did a better job of getting the most zany fun and mileage out of this body-swap gimmick. Little isn’t a bad film; it simply isn’t crafted as well and suffers from several slow, plodding scenes that suck away the story’s momentum.

The one big way that Little outclasses those two older body-swap movies is in its message. Our hero Jordan undergoes a dark transformation in middle school, changing from a good kid who is bullied into a bad kid who adopts the role of a bully. When a magic spell sends her 37-year-old self back to her middle-school self, we realize that she’s been given an opportunity to re-do middle-school the “correct” way. As with all good heroes, Jordan needs to be humbled and acquires important self-insights from this humbling. She learns that the best way to fight bullies is not to become a bully but rather to become one’s true self and best self. In short, the best revenge is to live well.

This moral transformation parallels the one showcased in my favorite movie, Groundhog Day, a Reel Heroes Hall of Fame movie that we reviewed several years ago. Jordan’s metamorphosis from jerk to saint is an archetypal heroic transformation that we see in stories about Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol and the Grinch in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. In our book, Reel Heroes and Villains, we discuss the idea of a moral transformation being one of the most important kinds of transformations that a great hero can undergo.

Scott, I’m conflicted about Little. On the one hand, the performance by 14-year-old Marsai Martin is simply amazing. She outshines all the adults in this film and carries it on her shoulders. Now, we’ve seen children with big personalities who think they’re adults. Usually, they come off as smart-alecky brats. But Martin’s performance is incredibly nuanced and mature. She fully presents as an adult in a child’s body. I wonder how she prepared for the role because some of her mannerisms duplicated those of Regina Hall’s older version of Jordan. Also, when young Jordan starts to overcome her childhood bullying and see those around her (both her middle-school peers and her adult employees) as humans, Martin displays a very real empathy. I will be following this young actor’s career.

But on the other hand, the script is very poorly written. There are plot holes that are simply not addressed (for example – nobody questions what happened to little Jordan when big Jordan returns). The adult actors are very ‘hammy’ – what I would call television sitcom quality. There are a number of gratuitous site gags and gotcha moments that were more appropriate for a slapstick comedy. This simply wasn’t a very good movie, but with a spectacular performance by a young star.

Good call on that plot hole, Greg. I was also wondering how the adults were going to explain to the school system (and to Rachel Dratch) how and why young Jordan just disappeared.

Greg, Little falls a little short of being a good movie. It’s actually not a bad film and deserves credit for delivering a good message about why bullies become bullies and what bullies can do to redeem themselves. In our Reel Heroes and Villains book, we mention that heroes transform their pain whereas villains succumb to their pain. Jordan is able to use her setback to learn something she could have (or should have) learned as a child. It’s a nice transformation story that isn’t told as well as it could have been. I give the film 2 Reels out of 5.

I’ve reviewed Jordan’s hero’s journey and found it to be stronger than the movie itself. It’s an inspiring story of learning, growth, and redemption. As such, I give Jordan 4 Hero points out of 5. The message of the story is intertwined with the hero journey, as it focuses on the process by which bullies are formed and (hopefully) redeemed. Fortunately, we don’t need a magic spell to undergo this process, but sometimes therapy can help. I give the message 3 Message points out of 5.

Movie: Message: Heroes:

I agree with your assessment of Little Scott. Normally I would also award only 2 Reels for this low-budget, TV-quality film. But I am very impressed with young Marsai Martin. I think it’s easier for an adult (like Tom Hanks in Big or Zachary Levi in Shazam) to act like a child, than for a child to act like an adult. Marsai carried this film and outperformed her adult counterparts. I give Little 3 out of 5 Reels.

This is a nice, compact hero’s journey and again, much to my pain, I agree with your analysis. Especially in this woke age of anti-bullying, a movie about an adult who overcomes her bullying is appropriate. And the fact that it is hidden in a story about a child helping other children overcoming bullying is especially nice. I give Little 3 Heroes out of 5.

Finally, the message of Little is to love yourself so that you can love others. Sadly, Jordan’s transformation is nearly instantaneous and very little time was spent showing her making this transition. It felt completely inauthentic and I wonder if the filmmakers had trouble deciding if Little was a madcap comedy or heartwarming coming of age. With a muddled message I can only award 2 out of 5 Message points.

Movie: Message: Heroes:

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