Directing: C-
Acting: B+
Writing: D
Cinematography: B-
Editing: C+

If I weren’t so OCD about seeing any movie from beginning to end if I am going to write a review of it, I would have gotten up and left Little halfway through. This movie has elements that elevate it — most notably the performances — but, unfortunately, really nothing redeems its truly awful script.

Directed and co-written by Tina Gordon, whose only other directorial feature credit is a 2013 film I never saw (or heard of) called Peeples, Little is written in a way that suggests Gordon herself was never actually a child, or maybe she’s of an alien race that never experiences childhood, and is now making her best guess as to what it’s like. The premise is essentially a rehash of the 1988 Tom Hanks film Big, just inverted in several ways: the protagonist is a black woman instead of a white man; and instead of wishing to be “big,” a sassy preteen girl with magic powers she doesn’t even know she has wishes for a horrible woman to be “little.”

So far so good, right? Anyone in their right mind would be on board so far. This sounds fun! And, to be totally fair, it must be noted that the principal actors are great. Regina Hall plays the grown Jordan Sanders, an uber-successful businesswoman who owns her own business developing apps. She lends a relatable charm and vulnerability to her hardened nastiness, even if it’s patently undeveloped in the writing.

And that’s the fatal flaw in this movie, really — none of the characters have any true dimension. The script, packed wall to wall with painfully corny platitudes about “putting up walls” and “being yourself”, is downright embarrassing. But, Issa Rae brightens every scene she’s in as April, Jordan’s assistant. And Marsai Martin is so great as “little” Jordan, she almost makes this movie watchable. Almost.

This ineptly executed story is not the fault of any of the actors, however — and Marsai Martin leaves the deepest impression. I sincerely hope to see more of her in other, better movies. It’s no less than she deserves. We already know Regina Hall and Issa Rae are great. If Little were a better movie, Marsai Martin would break out as a revelation.

But, it’s not often that I am in a movie theatre and literally find myself thinking, Oh my god, this is bad. If it weren’t for the undeniable charisma of the actors, I would freely expect this to qualify as the worst movie I saw all year. It may yet retain that distinction. Its ignorance of how humans actually interact and how life really goes is kind of breathtaking. Sure, you expect a certain level of such things in light comedies. But this one has a level of moralizing so clichéd it might put you to sleep. In fact, it did literally that to one guy in the theatre I was in. I envied his unconsciousness.

The very title is weirdly misleading, incidentally. “Little” Jordan is a grown woman in the body of a 13-year-old. Little has this alternate-dimension idea that any kid in middle school would actually refer to themselves as “little.” The title might work if the kid were, say, six years old. Not even adults in the real world call 13-year-olds — literal teenagers — “little kids.”

In other words, nothing in Little makes any sense. It has occasionally enjoyable moments, and surely plenty of people will enjoy it far more than I did. That doesn’t change how fundamentally dumb it is. One scene after the next strains suspension of disbelief, distracting in its contrived “cuteness.” It can’t even pick a tone, or decide whether it’s a kids’ movie or meant for adults, veering between Jordan “learning how to be nice” as she deals with the middle school she has to go back to, and Jordan otherwise dealing with very adult concerns.

Little is a big mess.

If only we could see them in a better movie.

If only we could see them in a better movie.

Overall: C


Directing: C
Acting: B
Writing: C-
Cinematography: B-
Editing: C+
Special Effects: C

Usually when a movie is getting mixed reviews, I can pretty easily tell what it is the people who liked it saw in it. Not so with Captive State, which certainly made me feel like a captive, and that’s about as effective as I can call it. Is it possible half the people who saw this movie liked it on some level just because they have no taste? Or brains? Some people are happy to be entertained by anything that happens to move on a screen, after all.

This movie is all setup, and then . . . the end. Spoiler alert: after one hundred nine minutes, there is no payoff whatsoever. It’s the story of an insurgency of inner city human captives to an invading alien race, nine years after first contact, preparing to make their move. A move gets made, and then you find out that wasn’t really the move. Something much deeper and more intricate is going on! Before we get to see that, though — the credits roll.

I’d say that I have a lot of questions, except that I left this movie relieved that it was over and preferring not to keep thinking about it. It was just so boring. But, I suppose I have some space to fill here. I’ll share some of my questions.

What’s the point of this alien race only taking over all the major cities in the world? I mean, I know the global population is more and more urbanized as time goes on, but rural populations still exist. What are those people doing? Are they just living peaceful lives, but for an inability to contact family in the cities? Also, what about the farming infrastructure that feeds those in the cities? How do goods come and go?

Don’t get me wrong — plenty of movies are great even with massive plot holes. It’s rare that plot holes don’t exist. But the point of making the audience overlook them is to offer a story so compelling that you don’t care. Captive State is so tedious that I had no choice but to spend a lot of time thinking about these things.

During the opening credits, white text on black computer screen tells us what’s going on, the way society has been affected by this alien race taking over any and all government functions. “The gap between rich and poor has never been wider,” it says. How original.

Writer-director Rupert Wyatt, who brought us the objectively superior (but still just . . . fine) Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, seems to be going for some kind of subtle social commentary here. He aims and misses. Hell, he barely aims. Only in very occasional moments does something relevant to such a concept get said or done. For instance, a detained teenager (Ashton Sanders, the best thing in this movie) tells a Chicago police officer (John Goodman, plainly just getting a paycheck) he wants a lawyer. The response is, “You and I both know those days are gone.” This exchange is in the trailer, clearly to suggest there is something more to this. Turns out there isn’t.

I went into Captive State knowing it woudn’t be great, but thinking I might still be entertained. I wanted it to have more thrills. It has none. It makes an extended attempt at suspense, which ultimately falls flat. I wanted to see more of the aliens, which have a pseudo-humanoid shape which can turn into countless spikes at will. The screen time of these creatures — or “roaches,” as the humans call them — clocks in easily under five minutes. The rare times they do appear onscreen, the lighting is always incredibly dim and the special effects are still noticeably substandard.

There’s a couple wide shots of downtown Chicago, downtown being the “zone” where humans aren’t allowed at all, only the aliens. No explanation for this is ever given, and it kind of defies logic. We are told humans are subjected to indentured servitude to help construct an “underground habitat” for them, but that’s it. The objective of the humans is always to “regroup” and “fight back.” It would be a lot easier to root for them if the impetus for this entire scenario actually made sense.

In short: I don’t get it. And I don’t care to.

This kid deserves to be in a better movie.

This kid deserves to be in a better movie.

Overall: C