This age-swap comedy is hardly original, but it boasts a standout performance from its young star.
Pick your favourite movie, change the concept slightly and Hollywood's next big hit could be born. It worked for The Fast and the Furious, which took Point Break's storyline, swapped surfboards for cars and spawned a hugely successful franchise, and it somewhat works in Little as well. Sequels and spinoffs aren't as likely to follow in the current case, but this age-swap comedy serves up a bit of fun with its reversed take on 80s classic Big. To be accurate, it serves up a highly predictable tale, themes to match, a few laughs, energetic performances and a star-making turn from 14-year-old Marsai Martin.
Best known for TV sitcom Black-ish, Martin is a comic force to be reckoned with as Jordan Sanders, a character she shares with Regina Hall. The younger actress plays the 13-year-old version of the hotshot technology entrepreneur — both when she was originally a bullied, anxious, science-loving teenager suffering the ultimate humiliation at her school talent show, and when the tyrannical thirty-something is turned back into her adolescent self by a kid waving a magic wand. As an adult, Jordan has been coping with her youthful torment by becoming a rich, unpleasant control freak, unleashing much of her intimidation upon her long-suffering assistant April (Issa Rae). Then she picks on a child, wakes up to discover that she's now a child again herself, and is forced to enlist April to act as her legal guardian.
Obviously, there's no question that writer-director Tina Gordon (who also helped pen What Men Want) and her co-scribe Tracy Oliver (Girls Trip) have seen Tom Hanks dance around on a walking keyboard in Big. The link is right there in Little's name. Martin has too, and that's where the film actually sprang from. The teen actress watched the movie, came up with a twist and pitched the idea to the right person. Now she's starring in the end product. She's also an executive producer on the picture — the youngest ever in Hollywood.
Thanks to this origin story, there's a shameless feeling of familiarity to the flick — yet it's by design, rather than through arrogance, ignorance or laziness. The film's pace is breezy and its tone is bouncy, creating a feel-good, upbeat, self-empowering vibe, which should surprise no one. The expected jokes and messages also arrive on cue. Indeed, Little is well-aware that everyone knows where it sprang from, that it's never going to be original, and that plenty of other body-swap comedies have also done something similar. As a result, it rarely contemplates breaking the mould. More than that, it doesn't think it needs to. The film does pair its concept with the African-American experience, and calls out the fact that these kinds of antics usually only involve white characters, but it's otherwise content to stick to the formula. And while playing it safe is rarely the path to big-screen success, there's a reason for Little's approach.
Instead of stepping into new territory, the movie adheres to the template, relying on its cast to add much-needed personality. In exaggerated mode, Hall has a ball. Finding the sweet spot between affable and awkward, Rae does as well. In the precocious Martin's case, she shines brighter than her character's oversized sunglasses and glitzy outfits. Without her, all of the film's cliches and tropes would take centre stage, from Jordan's initial shock at her sudden transformation, to the inevitable makeover montages, to the just-as-expected learning of life lessons. But while they're still all blatantly apparent, Martin's spark goes a long way. Crucially, she inhabits her character like an adult placed in a kid's body, rather than a child playing dress-up imitating someone older. With the younger Jordan strutting around in designer clothes, confidently ordering whisky at a bar and even flirting with her teacher when she's sent back to school, it's a vital difference, and it shows.
Little still belongs to one of today's most pervasive and worrying trends — where everything can, should and must be rehashed over and over and over again — but it finds a way to stand out. In the crowded age- and body-swap genre that counts everything from 13 Going on 30 and 17 Again to Freaky Friday and The Change-Up, that too makes a difference. A big one, fittingly.