Fourteen-year-old Black-ish star Marsai Martin is the mastermind behind high-concept comedy Little, having first pitched the idea to Black-ish creator Kenya Barris when she was just 10 years old. That’s great news for Martin, who becomes the youngest person to ever produce a Hollywood movie thanks to her executive producer credit, but it’s not so great for the movie itself, which is sloppy, unfunny, poorly constructed and full of contradictory messages. It plays like, well, a movie conceived by a 10-year-old.
Martin’s ideas may need refining, but her performance is probably the best part of Little, which serves as an effective showcase for her comedic and emotional range. Martin begins the movie as young Jordan Sanders, a gawky nerd who ends up humiliated in front of her entire school while attempting to give a science presentation, and vows to never allow herself to be mistreated again. Fast forward to 25 years later, and adult Jordan (Regina Hall) is now the ruthless, cruel head of a vaguely defined tech company, treating her employees like servants and constantly yelling at her well-meaning assistant April (Insecure’s Issa Rae).
Clearly Jordan has lost touch with her true self, and like arrogant movie protagonists since the dawn of cinema, she needs magical intervention to bring her back down to earth. That comes in the form of a kid wielding a magic wand, who wishes Jordan back to her younger self. That’s where Martin shines, playing the imperious adult Jordan in a pint-sized body, bossing April around, attempting to order alcoholic beverages, driving around in her fancy sports car and delivering world-weary put-downs to people twice her size. Martin convincingly plays an adult in a kid’s body, although sometimes she may be a little too convincing, as when little Jordan aggressively flirts with not one but two hunky adult men, in a seriously misguided subplot.
One of those men is Jordan’s new middle school teacher, thanks to a series of clumsy contrivances that end with April posing as Jordan’s aunt and being threatened with jail time if she doesn’t enroll her niece in school. Like pretty much every plot element in Little, Jordan’s schooling is a half-formed series of disjointed scenes. Jordan appears to attend class only once, and the main purpose of her return to school is for her to befriend a trio of generic nerds who teach her the importance of not pretending to be someone you’re not. While April is forced to take the lead at work, Jordan also learns the value of listening to her employees (even though the app idea that April pitches in the climactic meeting is laughably hokey, and obviously reverse-engineered to reflect the themes of the movie).
April also learns to have confidence in herself and speak her mind, and that’s a lot of lesson-learning for a movie that also has to fit in uncomfortable comedic set pieces involving corporal punishment and school bullying. The screenplay by Tina Gordon (who also directed) and Girls Trip’s Tracy Oliver is filled with clunky speeches and warmed-over jokes, and Gordon’s sitcom-level direction lurches from scene to scene sometimes without any apparent motivation. Rae, who is warm and charismatic on Insecure, plays a dull straight woman to Martin’s antics, and the perpetually underrated Hall gives a rare bad performance as she overdoes all of adult Jordan’s worst qualities.
The movie wraps up in the most predictable, obvious way, and one or two self-aware jabs at its cliched resolution can’t make up for the lazy route it takes to get there. It’s easy to forgive a kid for not having enough cinematic knowledge or experience to craft a sophisticated, original comedy, and Martin still has a promising career ahead of her. The adults involved, however, have no excuse.