The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Mark Jenkins’s review of “Little,” click here.
“Little” is about two powerful women. And neither of them knows how to use that power.
Thirteen-year-old Jordan (Marsai Martin) is having a tough time in middle school. She’s constantly bullied, and her torture culminates in a disastrous talent show performance. Afterward, her parents console her, promising that life will be better when she’s an adult — her smarts will take her to the top and no one will be able to bully her anymore.
Flash-forward to the present: Jordan (now played by Regina Hall) is the head of her own tech company and the kind of woman who keeps giant portraits of herself in her office and has an amazing apartment with a paint color on the walls that I covet. I don’t know how to find out what that color IS, but it’s going in my bedroom.
Jordan will inevitably be compared to Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada,” which is unfair. To Miranda. She was a boss from hell with scathing remarks, yes, but they came from her confidence and were all based in truth. Whereas Jordan is a full-on abusive bully who’s positive that everyone is out to hurt her personally or professionally. April (Issa Rae), Jordan’s assistant, fears her so much that she can’t bring herself to pitch her idea for a new app. The two women stand face to face, each afraid of the woman in front of her.
In an only-in-the-movies moment, Jordan is transformed into her little self (still played by Martin). To appease Child Protective Services, April pretends to be Jordan’s aunt and enrolls her in the local middle school while April covers for her at work. After this sudden power switch, the two women are standing face to face again, each afraid of the woman (or girl) in front of her.
An aside: Can we just TALK about Martin? I cannot think of any recent comedic performance by a child actor that tops hers. Her timing is great, and her grasp of physical humor is marvelous. She clearly studied Hall’s movements and facial expressions to an obsessive degree, because she nails them without ever being an overt mimic. She is utterly believable as Hall’s young doppelganger, right down to the way she grabs her Birkin bag.
So mini-Jordan — who is still into money, clothes and men — and April have some zany adventures and some touching moments together, most of which are genuinely funny and emotionally effective. The script does get heavy-handed at times, and the romantic relationships are underwritten, but the central theme of “Little” is strong: What will these women do with power when they both have fear at their core? One is afraid to use it; one abuses it.
That happens a lot with women. There’s the common fear of speaking up, whether it’s making a point in a work meeting or telling the vice president of the United States to stop smelling your hair because that’s creepy. On the other hand, when a woman IS powerful by any external measure, there’s often a feeling that there’s only so much power for women to go around. Any woman who tries to take a place alongside you isn’t a help — she’s a threat. Add gender, race and class into it and it gets even more complicated (the one time Jordan is brought up short is when she’s faced with a white, male investor who’s even richer than she is).
When the power dynamic between Jordan and April changes, both women not only become more conscious of their own power, but reconsider how best to use it. Teen Jordan sees that, as an adult, she’s become the bully. Running things at work gives April a newfound confidence and a realization that she doesn’t have to act like CEO Jordan to be respected.
They both come to the conclusion that there is no “right” way to be a powerful woman. The time they spend together doesn’t turn Jordan into April or vice versa; instead, each becomes more comfortable in who SHE is. They stop measuring themselves against each other, and instead recognize that a powerful woman can have many faces.