Since Hailee Steinfeld rode into town in “True Grit,” we’ve been fairly blessed by the big-screen breakthroughs of teenage actresses. To name just a few: Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch”), Amandla Stenberg (“The Hate U Give”), Elsie Fisher (“Eighth Grade”).
Add Marsai Martin to the list. And at just 14-years-old — 13 when the cameras rolled — she’s one-upped them all. Along with starring in “Little,” Martin is also an executive producer, the youngest credited in Hollywood history. She is, quite literally, a boss.
And Martin, a tiny tyrant beneath a Diana Ross-sized afro, is the number one reason to see “Little.” The movie, itself, is a middling “Big”-styled body-swap comedy. But it’s elevated considerably the verve and charisma of its cast, which also features Issa Rae and Regina Hall.
But there’s a special pleasure in seeing someone front-and-center for the first time that you know is going to hold the spotlight. Martin, the “black-ish” star, helped conceive of “Little,” and the film, fittingly, is itself a kind of fable of self-empowerment.
An enjoyably over-the-top Hall (playing a far crueler boss than her “Support the Girls” supervisor) stars as Jordan Sanders, a high-powered executive who runs her Atlanta tech company with a Scrooge-level degree of abuse for all who encounter her, including her many employees and, most of all, her assistant, April (Rae). When Jordan insults a wand-wielding young girl (“You chocolate Hogwart!”), a spell is cast, and the next morning Jordan awakes as her 13-year-old self (Martin).
The premise is overly familiar (“Freaky Friday,” ”13 Going on 30″), but there’s an obvious twist. After a panicked Jordan summons April to her high-rise apartment for help, April refutes the movie’s very premise: “But that’s for white people.” Looking for answers, she quickly googles “Female Gary Coleman disease.”
They’re good lines in a movie that could have used more of them. Child services (Rachel Dratch) is called in. Jordan is sent back to her old school where, as seen in a flashback that opens the movie, she initially resolved to become the bully rather than the bullied. Jordan introduces herself as the “new alpha” and makes eyes at her teacher (Justin Hartley), purring, “Teach me somethin’.”
Just as Jordan will have to learn to soften, April will have to toughen. When Jordan is small, April is thrust into running the company. While having as much of Rae, the gifted creator and star of “Insecure” is very welcome, director Tina Gordon Chism (screenwriter of “Drumline” and “What Men Want”), who co-wrote the film with Tracy Oliver, gets a little caught between story lines and tones. The comedy opportunities are riper for “Little” in the classroom, but the movie ends up feeling more like a workplace comedy. Chism might have been better served daring more adult humor, or being content with the PG-13-rated “Little” as family entertainment.
The pacing is sluggish when it should be quickening, and nothing in how “Little” turns out will surprise anyone. Yet the trio of Hall, Rae and Martin makes “Little” a consistently pleasant experience. Martin isn’t just playing a version of her “black-ish” character, but is effectively channeling Hall’s performance in miniature. She’s going to be big.
“Little,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for some suggestive content. Running time: 109 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.