'Little' Review: Marsai Martin Claims Her Moment
At 10, Black-ish star Marsai Martin approached the show’s creator, Kenya Barris, with a pitch for a movie she wanted to make. At 14, she’s now the youngest producer ever credited on a Hollywood film and co-stars in Little alongside hilarious leading ladies Regina Hall and Issa Rae. But don’t get it twisted. Marsai Martin owns this movie. This little girl is going to be a big star.
Directed by Tina Gordon Chism, Little is a gender-swapped Big with a premise flip. Instead of a little boy wishing to be “big,” this comedy has a grown woman who is wished into being “little.” At 38, Jordan Sanders (Regina Hall) is a tech titan who runs her company with a perfectly manicured iron-fist. To establish the terror she inspires in her employees, Little steals a bit from The Devil Wears Prada. But instead of a sassy Stanley Tucci warning “gird your loins,” you have a frantic Issa Rae warning everyone to hide themselves and the forbidden bagels! Jordan’s no softer in her personal life. She keeps her would-be boyfriend (a smoking hot and hotly sweet Luke James) at arm’s length, and the closest thing she has to a friend is her assistant April (Rae) whose life she makes a living hell with her endless and outlandish demands. But Jordan oversteps when she crosses a little wannabe witch. “Black girl magic” gets literal when the wave of a wand has Jordan wake up as 13 again.
Here’s where Martin takes over. She and Hall create a perfect handoff. Hall sets up a fierce HBIC with a fashion sense as sharp as her tongue, and Martin runs with it. Little Jordan struts out into the grown-up world unaware that her body—and thereby all her power dynamics—have changed. She’s now getting guff from baristas, valets, and literal pushbacks from an elevator-blocking pest. Her attitude—once intimidating—is now comically oversized. And with no one to depend on, she calls on her assistant. But here too the status has shifted. April will not be talked down to by a child. And off we go, on a romp that involves a bullying cheerleader, a suspicious child services rep (Rachel Dratch!), a hunky striptease, and a wine-fueled musical duet.
Little bounces between April covering for Jordan at the office and Jordan forced to deal with the hell of high school all over again while trying to track down the “chocolate Hogwart” to undo this small spell. All that bouncing makes for a wobbly journey. And there are quite a few beats where the plot stops dead so another life lesson can be delivered “very special episode style,” but it’s a PG-13 movie meant to speak to parents and kids. I can’t really begrudge its earnest anti-bullying message, even though it’s crudely interjected. But mostly, I don’t care about the wonkiness of the flow because Little is just so much fun.
Hall as a demanding diva offers the audience the illicit thrill of a female power fantasy of having enough wealth, talent, and power that you can behave badly without consequence. Then Rae enters, chipper and charming with an edge of funky and flustered. Whether she’s awkwardly flirting with obscenely gorgeous men (Tone Bell, Justin Hartley) or taking off her earrings to throw down with an unruly Little Jordan, Rae is radiant and delightfully funny. If there’s anyone with a lick of sense in Hollywood, she will be our next Meg Ryan. Line up the rom-coms and the dashing leading men and let her knock it out of the park over and over again.
Then there’s Martin, who as a child actress has created the perfect vehicle for herself. At first glance, Little Jordan might seem a rehash of Martin’s wise-beyond-her-years, suffer-no-fools tween on Black-ish. But here, Martin is more bombastic and yet more mature. Her physicality exudes confidence, whether she’s draped across her sofa, wearing too-big silk pajamas and a side-eye that could kill, or stomping down a bar, wielding a breadstick like a microphone as she belts out Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down.” And then there’s my absolute favorite scene, teased in the trailer, but even wilder in the film: Little Jordan is hot for teacher. Mr. Marshall (Hartley) is trying to be compassionate on the new girl’s first day. And in response, Martin flirts, not like a fawning school girl, but like a badass woman who knows exactly how alluring confidence can be. It’s outrageous and a little uncomfortable to watch her look him over and purr, “So you feeling what I’m feeling?” Then his discomfort in the face of her unrelenting gaze is absolutely hysterical! (Part of the fun is probably the subversion of a man being made uneasy by a female gaze.) Martin is so convincing as a 38-year-old in a 13-year’s body it’s almost alarming, but absolutely fantastic. And as Jordan learns the lessons that entail being knocked down a few pegs, Martin gets the chance to play, loosening up, getting silly, and dancing. And it’s all a joy.
On top of all this fun, Little is a movie that gleefully celebrates female power, on and offscreen. In this film written, directed, produced and fronted by women, Jordan is not condemned for her ambitions but encouraged to see how her attitude as a hindrance to them and to her own happiness. By relying on April, Jordan discovers the strength found in sisterhood and community. By having to step up at work, April discovers her own inner strength. And they do all this in so, so many fabulous clothes. I’d be remiss if this review did not include praise of the seriously sensational fashion in Little.
Costume designer Danielle Hollowell had a tricky task in establishing big Jordan’s sense of style then translating it onto her teeny teen little. It not only brings a continuity to the character but also how little Jordan’s now-oversized outfits underline how Jordan’s ego is also too damn big! Then, there’s the element too often ignored in female-focused comedies: the power of clothes! The right outfit can make a woman feel powerful. Jordan is established as a big believer in this from the jump. Early on, Little offers a Wonder Woman ice cream moment when Jordan peruses her massive walk-in closet and shows a genuine giddiness as she chooses her outfit and shoes for the day. Then when she’s shrunk, a quick shopping trip to Target leaves her in too-short overalls that have her looking ridiculous and feeling insecure. After a bad day back in school, she goes on a shopping spree (sadly off-camera) and gets a teeny pink power suit, a glittering platform heel, a rainbow-striped bomber jacket. They are more than chic spectacle. They show Jordan reclaiming herself and rediscovering her power. April’s journey is charted by clothes too, leaping from hipster tees to borrowing from Jordan’s closet (“looking like Cookie from Empire”) to finding a power-style that’s more her own, funky and cool.
In short, bursting with laughs, girl power, and fantastic fashion, Little is big fun. And Martin is its big, shining star.
Header Image Source: Universal Pictures
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