The Big Charm of Marsai Martin’s Little

An inversion of Tom Hanks’s classic body-switch movie, Big, the film is a delightful vehicle for the 14-year-old actor, who also served as executive producer.

In Little, the film she stars in and executive produced, the teenage actor Marsai Martin is charming to watch. (Eli Joshua Adé / Universal Pictures)

In the 1988 Tom Hanks film Big, a 12-year-old boy named Josh Baskin (David Moscow) changes his life forever to impress an older girl. After being told that he’s too short for a carnival ride, he enters a strange arcade machine and earnestly wishes to be “big.” The following day, Josh wakes up as a 30-year-old man (played by Hanks), whose initial confusion about the corporeal switch later gives way to comedic hijinks and wholesome reflection.

The chief location for Big Josh’s fast-tracking into adulthood is the company where he finds work soon after the switch. With his childlike enthusiasm and surprising insight into the minds of youths, the bewildered adult Josh lands a job at MacMillan Toy Company. Early into his new gig, Josh nearly collides with his new employer, who offers a lasting lesson: “The boss should get knocked on his ass once in a while. It’s good for him.”

Big, which earned Hanks an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, capped a series of late-’80s films about body-switching. And now, a little more than 30 years later, the 14-year-old actor Marsai Martin has flipped Hanks’s film, a favorite of her mother’s, into a story that manages to account for both the universal frustrations of childhood in general and the specific ways that black girls and women are routinely overlooked by their peers and superiors alike.

In Little, released last week, Martin first appears as a 13-year-old named Jordan Sanders, who’s bullied by her middle-school classmates for being a nerdy science enthusiast. After an embarrassing moment at a talent show, she swears she’ll get back at them—and everyone else who belittles her—when she’s big (and a boss). The film then cuts to Jordan as a hyper-successful 38-year-old tech CEO, played by Regina Hall. The big Jordan is cartoonishly evil to all her employees, especially her assistant, April (Issa Rae). One day, a young girl visiting their office takes note of Jordan’s nasty attitude and casts the film’s inciting curse: “I wish you were little.”

Much of Little’s humor and warmth comes from Martin, who is a delight to watch, especially as the body-swapped adult Jordan. Some viewers might know her as Diane Johnson, one of the children on ABC’s Black-ish, but in the film Martin gives an impressive lead performance. Little’s snark gives her the opportunity to showcase a broad range: She harnesses all of Hall’s anger and toxicity as the older Jordan with an undercurrent of vulnerability.

Martin also produced the film. At 14, that makes her the youngest executive producer in Hollywood, a feat made more impressive by the story that Martin fired an agent who “didn’t support me when I wanted to create my own projects when there was no available roles,” as she wrote on Twitter earlier this year. “They wanted me to chill and wait for the roles to come, instead of create them.”

Little doesn’t just present Martin with the kind of starring role she might’ve had to wait years for as a black girl. It also highlights the tremendous talent of Hall, who has often been a criminally underrated actor despite decades of stellar work. Rae, who created Insecure, lends some of her trademark humor to the role of April, balancing adult Jordan’s caustic tendencies with goofiness and growing aplomb. The film was directed by the screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism and written by Tracy Oliver, both of whom are black women.

Regina Hall stars as the adult version of Martin’s character, a CEO whose mean-spirited nature stems from both middle-school bullying and tech-industry discrimination. (Eli Joshua Adé / Universal Pictures)

In this, the movie’s existence makes the case for one of its central themes: Black girls and women often offer one another invaluable support even when no one else will grant them opportunities. Early in Little, the adult Jordan tells April that she had to pitch her company 17 times before any investors would say yes to a black woman in tech; by the end of the film, that number takes on a new significance after Jordan takes a chance on April’s idea for a new app.

For all its moments of social commentary, though, Little is also a studio comedy. There are laughs galore, often right alongside the pithy analysis. (And several scenes feature the actor and singer Luke James as an earnest hunk.) One recurring joke, for example, involves Jordan’s biggest client, Connor (Mikey Day), a painfully recognizable tech figure. “I lived a hard-knock life,” the wealthy white man tells her in one scene, before lamenting the so-called struggle of having been given only $5 million by his father to start a company when he’d planned for $10 million. For anyone who’s grown weary of articles about “self-made” moguls who borrowed from the bank of mom and dad to get their footing, the film’s send-ups of Connor are particularly satisfying.

It’s disappointing, however, that Little includes an unnecessary transphobic joke early in the film. The pre-swapped adult Jordan calls a neighbor’s young daughter a boy, then says, “Oh, I get it. He’s transitioning!” after the neighbor corrects Jordan’s incorrect gendering of the child. It’s cruel, which the adult Jordan is meant to be, but the joke continues far beyond the point of establishing her mean-spiritedness and undercuts a film that otherwise aims to embolden young audiences. Does #BlackGirlMagic, which gets name-dropped several times, not extend to black trans girls?

There are a couple of other cringey moments, but Little is mostly a charming comedy with a killer soundtrack and heart to spare. Late in the film, a softened Jordan channels the central theme of Hanks’s Big with a lasting message for the movie’s young audiences (that doubles as an important reminder for adult viewers). “Everyone thinks you have to grow up to know who you are, but kids already know who we are,” Martin says as her transformed character. “The world just beats it out of us.”