Cynical critics are already calling it a marketing ploy: According to Universal Pictures, Little’s 14-year-old star, Marsai Martin, is an executive producer on the movie and she even came up with the idea … four years ago! But as a reviewer who took her middle school age–daughter along, I can say this: The cutesy comedy rings true, and that is very likely due to youthful input. What this movie says about the kids of today is not cute at all in terms of bullying culture, brand-name fashion pressures and Instagram hashtag–driven trolling. Which makes it a film both kids and adults can relate to and, thanks to the sharp performances and underlying message, still enjoy. If the young star of TV's black-ish really did pitch and have producer-level say on this, it shows.
In any case, Martin is ebullient onscreen, conjuring the right amount of moxie and emotion to pull off the role and make us believe the premise of the film, which is essentially Big turned on its head, this time a puffy and adorable one, with lots of smile-inducing moments. Director and co-writer Tina Gordon (who penned the script with her Girls Trip co-writer Tracey Oliver) is working with some zesty and hip dialogue and ideas here, though much tamer than in their raunchy 2018 hit. Even if the story itself is pretty predictable, Martin and co-star Issa Rae have a joyful and sweet chemistry that makes up for a lot.
Regina Hall plays ruthless tech queen Jordan Sanders, a smart, fashionable and successful black woman who also happens to be an entitled monster of a human, prone to bossing around everyone in her path and treating her actual employees like dirt. Hall is a great actress and she shines in most every role she takes, but here, her scenes are so over-the-top mean and cartoon villain–like that they're are almost hard to buy into. Luckily (at least for this role) she’s not onscreen for too long.
After Jordan has it out with a little girl at her office, the child puts a spell on her, banishing her back to adolescence (an age we learn, via the film’s opening flashback sequence, was pure hell and essentially made her into the cold beeyotch she is today). She wakes up in her 13-year-old body and, thanks to a nosy neighbor calling Child Protective Services, is forced to enroll in the very middle school where she was a nerdy outcast bullied by the school mean girl 25 years earlier. Wouldn’t ya know it, there’s a similarly snotty cheerleader skirt–wearing queen bee to contend with once again, too.
During a particularly hard-to-watch school lunchroom scene, the new girl’s hair is the brunt of hurtful jokes— as students put straws in her Afro-style ’do unbeknownst to her. The insipid new mean girl (who is white) also posts about Jordan's undone hair online. To me, this seemed inconsistent with today’s “woke” culture, which teaches today’s youth to celebrate diversity. I was wrong. My 12-year-old, who attends a middle school in Silver Lake, made a point to tell me that this scene in Little was the most accurate thing she’s seen about the junior high environment in a while, even with the classist and racist implications. Sad.
When Jordan attempts to find a place to sit during lunch, not even her fellow “sisters” allow her at their table, much less stand up for her, something only an adult (which, despite her tiny body, she is) would have the confidence to call out for its wrongness and cultural disloyalty (which she does).
Despite a mostly black cast, Little isn’t really about race, though. The staff at Jordan’s company — who must come up with a new idea fast or lose her biggest client as she deals with her little problem — represent all ethnicities and she treats them equally badly. The other nerdy/bullied kids who do befriend our transformed protagonist at school are white, black and Asian. Jordan helps all three get some cool cred by letting them go crazy in her bling-filled walk-in closet, and later encourages them to show what they got at the school talent show, two scenes that convey both the awkwardness and the aspirational bliss of youth, bringing bits of wish-fulfillment kid fantasy to the screenplay that young audiences will dig.
Little may not possess the dramatic nuance of Tom Hanks in Big, and it certainly doesn’t delve as deep into cultural concerns as black-ish does, or the middle-school experience (watch the lauded Eighth Grade for that). It’s probably closer in spirit to Rae’s show Insecure— on HBO, but with the slightly sappy, family-friendly chick-flick feel of the Jennifer Garner '90s flashback 13 Going on 30. With spring break coming up, I recommend parents see a matinee with their kids. The message-driven happy ending in Little is not revelatory, but as I told my daughter when we left the theater, that doesn’t make it any less of a good reminder for us all: Adolescence sucks, bullies can exist at any age, and you’re never too big — or little — to learn meaningful life lessons.