“You went to bed grown, and you woke up little? That’s for white people, ‘cause Black people don’t have the time.”
Those words, delivered with gleeful panache by Issa Rae in Little, sum up exactly what makes this movie different from the many beloved iterations of the body switch trope: the protagonists are not white. In most other respects, Little fits in right alongside the likes of 13 Going On 30, Big, 17 Again, and Freaky Friday. And that’s part of the appeal. Following in the footsteps of recent successes like Crazy Rich Asians, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Black Panther, Little upgrades a classic genre by placing people of colour in a familiar narrative. It’s groundbreaking because we’ve seen it so many times before — just not quite like this.
The film opens in 1993, when a young Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) takes the stage at the Windsor Middle School talent show, hoping to break through into the popular clique. Bullied by her peers, she instead lands in the hospital, vowing that when grown up, she’ll never let anyone take advantage of her again. Fast-forward to the present, and now-38-year-old Jordan (Regina Hall) is the high-powered CEO of a tech company in Atlanta. She’s got it all: hot artist boyfriend (Luke James), penthouse apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows and city views, a closet that even Kylie Jenner would envy. She’s also a borderline sociopath, a bully hated by her staff, her neighbours, and most of all, her assistant, April (Issa Rae). But when an encounter with a budding Black girl magician turns her 13 again, she must come to terms with herself in a way she never has before.
Marsai Martin, who famously pitched the concept for the film when she was 10 years old and has an executive producing credit, crackles as Little Jordan. Forced to return to middle school, the scene of her formative trauma, she toggles between the breathless apprehension of any kid who doesn’t quite fit in, and the swishy confidence of a woman who has the world at her feet. Her chemistry with Rae, whose hilarious April must pose as Jordan’s guardian for the duration of the spell, is electric. Hall, meanwhile, goes full Cruella De Ville as grown-up Jordan. Her actions sometimes go beyond those of a mean boss: This woman would skin puppies.
But it’s the little things (pun very much intended) that make Little feel truly unique. Director Tina Brown told Refinery29 earlier this year that she was committed to having Black female creators represented throughout the film, and those details shine through, from the art displayed throughout Jordan’s apartment and company, to an Alexa-like “Homegirl” prototype voiced by Tracee Ellis Ross. Even the wine sipped by April and Jordan comes from Black female-owned wineries.
Fashion is integral to the body switch genre — think back to Jenna’s first encounter with 30-year-old her’s closet in 13 Going On 30. And here too, Little innovates. Costume designer Danielle Hollowell emphasized Black designers like Virgil Abloh, Carly Cushnie, and Brother Vellies’ Aurora James, giving Adult Jordan, Little Jordan and April their own, very specific styles. (That pink pantsuit! That gold skirt! The many colour-blocked heels! Gimme all of it!)
The script by Gordon and Tracy Oliver is a little more uneven, A couple of jokes— one at the expense of a plus-size woman, the other suggesting a little girl looks like she’s transitioning — don’t quite land. Little doesn’t need to go low — it has far better material to work with. Overall, the film transcends when it taps into its own power of representation. One scene, in which Little Jordan and April embark on an impromptu karaoke rendition of Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down” in a fancy restaurant filled with mostly white patrons, is particularly effective. Meanwhile, the impact of seeing a company employing many people of colour in high-power positions — rather than in solitary, token diversity roles — is a refreshing step forward.
But though Little thrives on specificity, its themes are universal. Being a teenager isn’t easy. And though most of the scenes are played for laughs, the movie never downplays the plight of those who are marginalized by others for looking, sounding or feeling different. Martin’s fellow middle-school misfit co-stars, Tucker Meek, JD McCrary, and Thalia Tran, are heart-achingly earnest, in the best possible sense, which will prompt even the iciest adult to care about their plight. (And yes, This Is Us’ Justin Hartley does make an appearance as a hot teacher, although he doesn’t get nearly as much screen time as you’d think judging from the film’s promos.)
All in all, Little is a welcome addition to the canon. And if someone has a tip on where to find a matching pink pantsuit, my inbox is open.
“Little” celebrates Black women, from the actors onscreen to the team behind the camera to the costume design. Support the film, which comes out April 12, with the hashtag #Ladies4Little.