Little Men

Film Review by Jamie Dunn | 14 Sep 2016
Film title: Little Men
Director: Ira Sachs
Starring: Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri, Greg Kinnear, Paulina Garcia, Jennifer Ehle, Talia Balsam, Maliq Johnson, Anthony Angelo Flamminio, Madison Wright, Mauricio Bustamante, John Proccacino, Alfred Molina
Release date: 23 Sep

Gentrification, class tensions and coming of age commingle in this vivid slice of life from Ira Sachs (Love is Strange, Keep the Lights On), who’s slowly staking his claim as American cinema's great humanist director

'You’re going to like the neighbourhood,' Tony (Michael Barbieri) says to Jake (Theo Taplitz), the new kid moving into the Brooklyn apartment above his mother's small dress shop where he helps out. 'It’s becoming a very bohemian area.' The shy, graceful Jake and cocky, boisterous Tony wouldn’t likely be friends if they met in high school, so rigid is that institution's social hierarchy. On the neutral playing field of a New York sidewalk, however, they recognise kindred spirits. Jake wants to be an artist, Tony an actor, and both love video games and exploring the city at speed, the former on roller skates, the latter on a scooter. Like 13-year-old boys can do, they become sympatico almost instantly. The relationship between their parents is more prickly.

Manhattanite Jake finds himself across the East River when his estranged grandfather dies, leaving his struggling actor dad Brian (Greg Kinnear) a brownstone apartment and the ground floor boutique Tony’s mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia) runs. As Tony says, this area of Brooklyn is becoming very bohemian, and Brian quickly realises that his father was letting out the shop for a song. Chilean seamstress Leonor, equally dignified and pugnacious, refuses the rent hike. The dispute soon turns nasty, and the boys are stuck in the middle.

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Sachs specialises in low-key melodrama, creating moments of joy and sadness so casually that they take you by surprise. While scenes of the boys racing through the New York streets or Tony nonchalantly putting his arms around his more reserved pal are joyous, the film's core is quietly melancholic, with the open-hearted naïvety of youth juxtaposed with the bitterness of adulthood. A lesser filmmaker might have painted the gentrifiers as the bad-guy capitalists, but Sachs' default compassion means that he never takes sides; both families have their struggles. You might be tempted to cheer Leonor’s withering putdowns of Brian’s acting career ('Oh, that must be very popular,' she says sarcastically when he mentions his off-Broadway turn in The Seagull) if Kinnear hadn’t already played him as a man beaten down by life's disappointments.

The heart of the film, though, is Jake and Tony’s friendship. Sachs gives each actor, both greenhorns, a show-stopping scene that plays to their particular strengths. Barbieri gets the film’s biggest laughs during an epic improv session with his acting coach, while the less showy Taplitz brings the tears with his desperate attempt to change his father's dollars-and-cents mindset. It’s the boys’ casual interplay together, free of the class-guilt and passive aggressiveness of their parents’ interactions, that really lingers. 'You’re a good friend,' says Tony when Jake agrees to join him in sending their parents to Coventry. What makes these scenes ache is that we know these boys will never feel friendship like this again.

Released by Altitude