Sunday, June 23, 2024

Marsai Martin and Issa Rae Shine in ‘Little’

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Little is not a great movie but it is unreasonably fun. It is charming and has a great big heart beating at its center. Well-meaning and just plain funny, whatever issues Tina Gordon’s film may have are easily forgivable.

Marsai Martin, the star of Little, reportedly saw Big, was inspired and pitched her idea to producer Kenya Barish. It is easy to see the inspirations of the Penny Marshall classic inside Tracy Oliver’s and Tina Gordon’s script. Ironically, very little of Little seems taken from Big. It instead feels like a modern update of A Christmas Carol just minus the Christmas aspect.

Less a film about the need for the season, Little focuses instead of the notion of being kind. Jordan Sanders (Regina Hall) is the C.E.O. of her own tech firm. An intelligent and almost impossibly rude bully of a woman. I say almost because all exaggerated extremes once thought unrealistic have been downgraded to slightly improbable due to the orange ogre with baby hands in the Oval Office.

After accosting a young girl performing magic in her parking lot Jordan wakes up the next morning as her former thirteen-year-old self. Wackiness ensues as, due to her oafish and cruel demeanor, she is left to figure things out on her own. Until she remembers she has an assistant April (Issa Rae).

Rae and Martin work off each other so effortlessly it all but fills in any lags the movie may have. The two have an easy rapport made all the more remarkable when you realize that both are playing the straight man and the fool simultaneously. The ease with which the power dynamics in the relationship shift is magic all it’s own.

Rae is a ray of pure light and joy. She brims with infectious energy. Her April rises to the task of caring for her newly transformed teenage boss. In the process, she discovers within herself an ability to stand up for herself and demand respect.

Martin is, hands down, a star in the making. Her role is immeasurably difficult. She is the anchor of the film and the emotional center. Not to mention she has the almost impossible task of playing a character whose adult self is played by the peerless Regina Hall. 

Possessed of crucial comic timing, Martin not only grounds the film but is also the one who lifts it up. Martin commands any scene she’s in. Whether she’s taking a pratfall or attempting to flirt with her teacher, Martin’s Jordan is a fully realized creation. Much more so than some of the characters in those mega-budget blockbusters stomping around our megaplexes these days.

Gordon and Oliver’s script is erratic with flashes of intelligence. The two explore what made Joran a bully, as well as the effects of bullying has on those who are bullied. In other words, it understands bullying as a form of abuse and that abuse is a cycle. At the very heart of Little is a woman, as a girl, trying to break a cycle she has no idea she’s been perpetuating.

The script may not be tightest, but it has a wry sharpness to it. When April hears about what happened to Jordan she stares in awe. “That’s for white people. Black people just don’t have the time.” Jordan agrees.

As in every movie involving a small successful business there is one client they absolutely cannot lose or an account they simply must land or the business goes under. Little has tech dudebro Connor (Mikey Day), an arrogant and clueless trust fund white boy. “Jordan, let me tell you a story. One day I had an idea. So I asked my father for a ten million dollar loan. But he only gave me five million! I needed ten million dollars but he only gave me five million!”

Gordon’s direction, however, is not as tight. But she does understand the value of sitting back and watching Rae and Martin go at each other. She allows for absurdities to crop up, such as when little Jordan and April begin a karaoke duet/duel while having lunch. Gordon understands what Little is really about. She doesn’t litter the movie with subplots and side stories. Even Connor’s threat to withdraw the account, though a major threat to the company, is not treated as the main plot point. Martin and Rae drive the movie and Gordon allows them to steer the film.

Greg Gardiner’s cinematography is what I would call visually functional. He and Gordon are not trying to make a stylized film. Rather they are trying to figure out the best way to showcase the obvious supernova talent contained within the frame. It works overall, never distracting from the performances and feel good aspect of Little.

Gordon does allow her characters’ outfits to pop. Costume designer Danielle Hollowell revels in colors and fabric in a way not seen since last year’s A Simple Favor. The outfits in Little range from marvelous to hilarious. From the arresting and vibrant colors to how the outfits all but scream the inner life of the character; they are always fascinating in their own unique way. Hollowell’s clothes bring a sense of playfulness to Little most comedies utterly ignore.

It would be easy to dismiss Gordon’s direction. She has sacrificed a visual style of the camera for a much more diegetic style. It is an assured and bold stroke of talent. Movies like Little work because they are sincere. The magic is magic and is never explained. Why Jordan is transformed into a little girl isn’t the point. The point is that she learns how to be a better grown up as a child.

Unlike most modern movies Little doesn’t twist itself into knots trying to explain the mechanics of its logic. Either you go with it or you don’t. I wish more movies had that kind of confidence in themselves.

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

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