Marsai Martin Steals the Show in ‘Little’

Writer/director Tina Gordon, one of the writers behind “What Men Want,” once again takes on the plight of the career-obsessed woman in her latest comedy, “Little.” This time around, the said career woman, Jordan Sanders (Regina Hall) isn’t the person being held back at work, as she is the ruthless boss, a successful tech mogul. As we seen in an opening flashback, middle school for young Jordan (Marsai Martin), like most people, was a lesson in humiliation. 25 years later, she has taken that anger to fuel her way to the top. As there is much about Jordan to admire, Gordon and Hall have go to extreme lengths to make her unlikable. Early on, we see her make a transphobic joke about the young child of her nosy neighbor, Mrs. Parker (Kausar Mohammed), and that’s just the beginning. Her way of running her company can best be described as a reign of terror, with her long-suffering assistant, April (Issa Rae), being the person she berates the most from the moment she wakes up. However, the tables turn after Jordan finally pisses off the wrong person—Stevie (Marley Taylor), the preteen daughter of the owner of a donut truck.

“Little” takes its time getting to its inciting incident. The overlong setup shows a different side of Hall, an actress known for playing a variety of women in everything from everything from “Scary Movie” to “Girls Trip” to her critically-acclaimed turn in last year’s “Support the Girls.” While Hall deserves props for trying something different, the charm she usually brings to her character is somewhat missed. After Jordan’s means-spirited attitude causes “Harry Potter” fan Stevie to grab her wand, she wakes up the next morning as her 13-year-old self. The only person she lets in on her secret is April, who not only has to cover for her at work, but also act as her guardian after Mrs. Parker spots child Jordan and calls CPS on her “mom.” Debbie Downer herself, Rachel Dratch, makes a cameo as Agent Bea, the caseworker who makes Jordan’s worst nightmare come true when she orders her back to her old middle school.

14-year-old Martin, who has honed her comedic chops as the precocious younger daughter on the hit sitcom “Black-ish,” also serves as an executive producer on “Little,” the youngest person to ever do so on a major Hollywood production. It’s no exaggeration to say that her performance is the best part of “Little.” Her comic timing is excellent, and she has a remarkable presence that allows her to hold her own against any adult performer. Jordan’s second go-around at middle school is initially not much more fun than the first time, and she finds kindred spirits in a group of outcasts, Isaac (J.D. McCrary), Devon (Tucker Meek) and Raina (Thalia Tran). A lot of fun comes from this storyline has she uses what she has learned as an adult to help her new friends and take down mean girl Jasmine (Eva Carlton).

Less exciting is the workplace plot, and “Little” seems conflicted as to whether it’s “Devil Wears Prada” sort of comedy or a movie about reclaiming one’s youthful optimism by going back to middle school. As great as Rae, the storyline involving her proving herself in the office feels trite, and Martin is sorely missed in every scene she is excluded from. However, there are some fun scenes of Martin and Rae together, particularly when they team up for a musical number in an upscale restaurant, bringing down the house with their version of a Mary J. Blige classic. Other enjoyable song-and-dance scenes involve a surprise stripshow staring Jordan’s sutior, Trevor (Luke James), and another towards the end that involves that toughest of audiences, the middle school talent show.

Little” opens April 12 nationwide.