‘Little’ Film Review: Issa Rae and Marsai Martin Bring Hilarious Chemistry to Body-Switch Tale

Mean boss Regina Hall gets turned into 13-year-old Martin and returns to middle school in Tina Gordon’s witty, thoughtful comedy

Eli Joshua Adé/Universal

The simple desire to be seen and valued is usually something we discuss regarding adults, often in terms of onscreen representation and in our romantic and professional lives. Rarely do we talk about what that really means through the eyes of children — specifically, a young girl today who knows she’s got #BlackGirlMagic but is still treated like a pariah among her peers.

That’s what makes director Tina Gordon’s “Little” so special. Through its heroine, the movie engages audiences in a narrative (co-written by Gordon and Tracy Oliver, “Girls Trip”) that at its core is about all of our purest intents: to feel loved, to be heard and to be good.

So it makes sense to begin the story when bespectacled Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin, “black-ish”) is 13 years old; honest, smart, and with her heart always in the right place. It’s the night of her school’s talent show, and she is sure she’s going to win over her haughty classmates with the best act, until she winds up yet again a punchline on stage in front of everyone. She’s mortified, but even more so, she’s angry because she wants so badly for her awful peers at the top of the social ladder to see her as the great person she knows she is.

Like many kids, she thinks she’ll finally have the chance to fully embody her power once she grows up. And she vows that when she does, those who laugh at her today will be forced to respect her. Enter grown-up Jordan (Regina Hall): It’s 25 years later, and she’s the owner of a major tech firm and on the cover of every business magazine. The now well-heeled diva has a badass car, a luxurious apartment, a building full of terrified underlings and a fine man (Luke James, “Star”) at her disposal. (Shout out to Danielle Hollowell and Javed Noorullah from the costume and production teams, respectively, for hooking up Jordan’s fashionable wardrobe and chic bachelorette pad).

Jordan is, in all respects, living the dream. She’s even got a personal assistant named April (played hilariously by Issa Rae) whom she pays to be available at her beck and call. At 38, Jordan is finally at a place in her life when everyone listens to her, and she is revered for the boss she is. Trouble is, she is now the bully, and everyone hates her. After three years of working by her side, April has been so demoralized by Jordan’s constant demands and outbursts that she has to listen to self-help audio just to get through her day. Though Jordan has finally reached the peak of her power, she’s all alone.

But we don’t really get to see the consequences of Jordan’s behavior as they affect her personal life (or lack thereof) until a self-assured young girl (Marley Taylor, “Almost Christmas”) is subjected to Jordan’s intimidation and waves her toy wand to put a hex on her using the words, “I wish you were little.” It’s a simple, innocent wish by a young person meant only to express discontent and to assert her own minuscule power in a way Jordan never got to at that age. But the spell turns Jordan back into a 13-year-old girl, sending her to the place of her worst fears — middle school. But this time around, she’s armed with the mind of a 38-year-old, trapped in a little girl’s body.

Naturally, the scenario is ripe for comedy, as we see Jordan still try to wield her power in her tween form. If you’ve seen Martin’s work on “black-ish,” then you already know that the young actress can easily navigate adult humor without crossing the line into being inappropriate. When she returns to school, for example, and finds out that her teacher is the handsome Mr. Marshall (Justin Hartley), she can barely keep her libido in check. Or when Jordan has to tell a shocked April what happened while struggling to convince her that she is still in charge, despite her diminutive height and enormous eyeglasses.

But along with all the laugh-out-loud moments (and there are plenty), “Little” evokes empathy for those with small voices and big hearts, and for talent that is often pushed aside. Not just with Jordan — who ultimately understands the error of her ways when she is brought down to size — but also through April, the undervalued assistant too scared to come forward with a great pitch for the company.

As the power dynamic between the two women shifts, it presents an opportunity for April to find her voice as a compassionate leader who finally gains her boss’ respect. Even more than that, her friendship, because after much high jinks together, the two finally see the good in each other, a reckoning helped along by Martin and Rae’s excellent chemistry.

“Little” is a funny, surprisingly heartfelt film, embedded in traditional themes and amplified by the talented Martin, who reminds us that she and other youth like her aren’t just adorable — they’ve got boss mentalities that cannot and should not be ignored.