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Little

“Most of us get old without growing up, and inside every adult (sometimes not very far inside) is a bratty kid who wants everything his own way. “ –Bill Watterson

Little is the brainchild of Marsai Martin, who costars on the sitcom “black-ish”. Inspired by the movie Big (obviously), Martin pitched the idea to “black-ish” showrunner Kenya Barris, who got the ball rolling as a producer on the film. So it was that Marsai Martin — at 14 years of age — became the youngest executive producer in Hollywood history. With a background like that — plus the fact that this is a female-centric comedy written and directed entirely by women — I was intrigued to see what we’d get.

Predictably, what we got was a vanity project for a 14-year-old girl.

This is the story of Jordan Saunders (played as an adult by Regina Hall, also another exec-producer), a high-powered tech mogul who apparently came to power with the philosophy of “Screw over others before they screw over you.” As a direct result, she walks all over everyone in reach, treating everyone like dirt, screaming her head off at her employees over every little thing… put simply, everything she knows about running a business, she learned from Mabel King’s performance as Evillene in The Wiz (1978). I’m not making that up, by the way — that’s an actual joke in the movie. Jordan herself makes the favorable comparison.

Basically, Regina Hall chews the scenery like she’s playing a 14-year-old’s idea of a billionaire CEO. This is by design, as Jordan gets magically turned into a middle-school version of herself (played by Marsai Martin). Hilarity ensues.

But then we have the other side of the equation: April, played by Issa Rae. The Bob Cratchit to Jordan’s Ebenezer Scrooge, April has been so thoroughly put-upon for so many years under the heel of her boss that she’s lost all self-esteem. So naturally, the tables turn when Jordan is suddenly in a kid’s body and April is the adult who has to hold everything together.

This manifests in some clever ways at first, as Jordan’s indiscriminate bullying through the first act comes back to bite her in significant ways during the second, but that plays out relatively quickly. Through the rest of the film, it’s more about how Jordan and April learn from each other so that Jordan learns humility and April gains confidence as they both open up and befriend each other.

But above all else, this is a movie about bullying. It’s an important lesson for teens, and Little Jordan does indeed get a dose of her own medicine through Mean Girl Jasmine (played by Eva Carlton). But at the same time, Adult Jordan also has to deal with entitled jackasses like the wealthy tech publisher Connor (Mikey Day, here basically treating us to a rerun of his Donald Trump Jr. impression on Saturday Night Live.).

The filmmakers were clearly trying to make a movie about bullying that all ages can relate to. Something that parents could watch with their teens, so that everyone in the family can take something away from it and talk about it. That’s certainly a noble goal, and I can see the appeal in a movie about bullying that’s more fun to watch than A Girl Like Her, Bully, Eighth Grade, or even Wonder. The problem is that those other movies succeed where this one fails because they all had deep-seated pathos.

The aforementioned films successfully convey the very real pain that comes as a direct result of bullying, showing the audience in clear and unavoidable terms how deceptively easy and surprisingly dangerous it is to slip into bullying behavior. A whimsical body-changing comedy simply isn’t set up for that. Granted there are a few moments when the filmmakers drop all the bullshit and put their efforts into making a sincere heartfelt statement. Those moments work beautifully, but they’re maybe ten minutes out of a hundred.

Through the vast majority of the movie, the focus is on the comedy, and this is where the “all ages” appeal completely falls to shit. The jokes are too shrill and braindead for halfway-intelligent adults, yet they’re also too raunchy and crass for parents to comfortably watch with their children. To wit: Shazam! had a scene that took place at a strip club, but never actually went inside; while Little features a male stripper dancing for a teenage girl in full view of the camera. There’s no actual nudity, but still.

The overlap between the “mature” stuff and the “juvenile” stuff is so tiny and so specific that it could only be both appropriate and entertaining to 14-year-olds. And therein lies the rub for this whole picture.

The plot is cellophane, the development arcs were built with a preference of formula over common sense, the characters are all stock, and the dialogue falls flat. The whole script feels like it was written by (or at least written with extensive notes and input by) a 14-year-old who spent her whole life in show business and didn’t know how much she didn’t know. It’s all technically serviceable, but condescending in such a way that the filmmakers clearly thought they were more inventive and profound than they actually were.

The movie is clearly trying to be mischievous in the same way that Shazam!, Home Alone, and Big were, but it can’t pull that off for some reason. You might say that has something to do with the gender swap and I wouldn’t be one to argue, but I think there’s a deeper problem. Those other movies were all about the childhood fantasy of enjoying — with no repercussions — all the privileges that adults keep to themselves. That way, when our young protagonist goes out driving late at night or drinks a beer, it feels like he’s getting away with something. By comparison, when we see Little Jordan wearing pantsuits and driving her sports car at breakneck speeds, we’re only seeing the character enjoy what privileges she had as an adult. More importantly, even though the character may look like a child, we know perfectly well that she’s an adult, and we know that she was turned into a kid through no fault or desire of her own.

While the sight of a teenaged girl acting like the Bitch In Charge may be a comically bizarre image, it’s undercut by the knowledge that such behavior for this particular character is nothing out of the ordinary. She’s not acting differently or getting away with anything, she’s simply acting like her normal self in keeping with her overall goal of getting her original body back.

With all of that said, however, we do at least have the knowledge that this particular young actress is getting away with acting like an adult Bitch In Charge. And that right there is the giveaway that this was clearly built as a vanity project for Marsai Martin. The whole movie was built around her performance, seemingly written and built for the purpose of showing her dramatic and comedic range and getting her a couple of dance sequences, all while she gets to act as this larger-than-life character who’s all attitude. That said, at least Issa Rae makes for a compelling scene partner. None of the other support players left any kind of positive impression, however.

I can give Little points for trying, but not much else. I sincerely wish I could recommend a film made by such an underrepresented demographic as black women, and executive producing a $20 million movie at 14 years old is impressive by any metric. Alas, the comedy is obnoxious from start to finish, unlikely to land with anyone who has more intelligence and emotional maturity than your average middle schooler. It certainly doesn’t help that Shazam! is still in theaters right now, treating a similar premise with far more creativity and genuine fun. Even with the empowering anti-bullying message, I can’t give too many points when there are so many other movies in recent memory that explored the same topic and did it so much better.

With all these movies scrambling around, fighting for every last box office dollar before Marvel comes in to sweep the multiplexes clean, I can’t see any reason for going out of your way to see this one. Even by home video standards, I’d recommend Wonder, Eighth Grade, or Love, Simon over this. Not recommended.

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