By Clarkisha Kent
We are in the thick of the era of reboots, remakes, and sequels. And with that being the case, it’s not far-fetched to say that there aren’t any ideas or concepts that are 100% original. That said, there are still movies that come around and put unique spins on evergreen concepts.
Little is one of those movies. Sure, it’s not the first film to broach the topic of ornery adults finding themselves humbled by returning to their youth where they may have not had enough power to be as awful. The Poof Point did it before. So did 13 Going on 30, Seventeen Again…and 17 Again. However, Little updates the concept of the truly awful person central character who needs a good kick in the arse by the universe (Jordan Sanders, humorously played by Regina Hall as an adult and Marsai Martin as a kid) by inserting a pretty good narrative device: social media.
To explain, the film begins with a bespectacled, 13-year-old Sanders at her middle school talent show. It’s obvious that she isn’t cool, popular, or particularly stylish and won’t be able to employ traditional talents (like singing and dancing) at the event, but she plots to win over her peers with a creative presentation and her ultimate weapon: her brain.
Of course, this is middle school. And middle school kids aren’t really concerned at this point with the mileage that brains have and or the mileage they can get you in life; so some popular kids see fit to embarrass her and per an interesting talk from her parents, she vows that she will have the last laugh when she gets “big,” or becomes an adult.
Which she does, and a now-38-year-old Sanders has it all. She is at the top of a thriving career in tech where she owns a major tech firm. Her sense of style has improved, so she finds herself going from magazine cover to magazine cover with poise, ferocity, and grace. She’s got a whip anyone would be envious of, lives in an apartment millennials like me dream of, and has a fine ass man (played by Luke James) lusting after and loving after her—constantly reminding her of how much of a badass she is.
You’d think a glow-up like this would be accompanied not only by extreme confidence, but also enough self-awareness to know it wasn’t always this way. But Sanders forgets that latter part, becoming just as soulless as her childhood bullies and bringing that same bullying mentality to adulthood…to the point that everyone around her–her neighbors, her employees, and the general populace–either can’t stand her or fear her.
And for awhile Sanders believes herself to be above correction and reproach–until she messes with the wrong little girl (played by Marley Taylor). The little girl’s nonsensical and innocent wish for Sanders to be knocked down a size quite literally comes true and Sanders becomes a 13-yr-old girl.
Part of the magic of the film is seeing the super-talented Marsai play Sanders as someone who slowly comes to the realization that she can not bully her way through this Groundhog Day of a middle school experience, like she might have been able to do as an adult. Because as mean as she thinks she can be, middle schoolers are meaner. Both in 1994 and 2019.
Her predicament is further aggravated by the fact that social media is a huge factor this time around and one that was definitely not the game-changer in 1994 that it is now. So even as Sanders is experiencing immense, intense, and unwanted déjà vu, it adds a fish-out-of-water layer and truly asks older audience members to ponder if they would have survived the great social media boom at the height of their teen or tween lives. In other words, on top of genuinely trying to become a better person in her second take on childhood, little Sanders literally needs to adapt to the culture, values, and technology of the times–or be retraumatized again.
And somehow Issa Rae’s performance as April, her underworked, under-appreciated, underpaid, overqualified, and uber-talented assistant, manages to really ground what could be an extremely outlandish film. Rae is wicked funny, as usual, and really nails what being a disgruntled employee that works under a despot like Sanders would be like (another experience that spoke to my millennial sensibilities). And April is familiar with her terror of a boss as an adult, but is completely thrown for a loop when she is re-introduced to her as a child and slowly learns all of her inadequacies and insecurities. As a result, April starts to get why Sanders is the way that she is. And it not only serves to humanize Sanders to April, but it also humanizes her to the audience as well (which is aided by the excellent chemistry between Martin and Rae).
The film is not without some clunky performance issues, however. For example, some may not find that the inciting incident that caused Sanders to grow up to be a repugnant adult was sufficiently traumatic enough to make her that mean. Others may cringe at the dialogue that is used to establish Sanders as the cold and ruthless human she has grown to be. Such dialogue includes a trans joke and a fat joke, (which is very dated in 2019) and is reminiscent (and as problematic) of the problems that film’s like Sierra Burgess Is a Loser face when trying to craft villainous or antagonist characters (i.e like with the Ronnie/Veronica character). It begs the question of how one is to successfully create morally “terrible” characters that eventually change without punching down on vulnerable audiences who are along for the ride.
Still, Little ends up being the little (ha!) film that could and injects itself with enough heart and humor to keep you curious and intrigued for its entire runtime. And the film serves to remind us that not only is it possible to be greater (and more successful) than the people who seek to harm us in our youth, but it is also possible to be kinder than them too. And that kindness is not synonymous with weakness and does not have to diminish one’s greatness.
Because in the paraphrased words of the great and iridescent Beyoncé (someone I’m sure younger and older Sanders would look up to), one should always be gracious, for the greatest revenge is success….and paper.