Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Ira Sachs
Stars: Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Barbieri, Theo Taplitz
Released 23rd September 2016
Director Ira Sachs is carving out a distinctive niche for himself – small, exquisitely formed films about life-changing events affecting a mere handful of people. ‘Love Is Strange’ was all about a mature gay couple who married and then had their home taken away from them. His latest, ‘Little Men’ is about a new friendship between two teenage boys which is threatened by their own families, of all people.
Teenagers Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri) are thrown together when Jake’s grandfather dies. Dad, Brian (Greg Kinnear), inherits a large apartment with shop beneath, rented by Tony’s mother, dressmaker Leonore (Pauline Garcia). The two boys get on like a house on fire, but when Brian starts putting his late father’s affairs in order, he realises the rent for the shop is far too low, especially in what is an up-and-coming area. Leonore can’t afford to pay more and, despite the boys desperately trying to stay friends, things start to fray and come apart at the seams.
Sachs is on familiar territory geographically, as the film is set in New York, primarily The Bronx which is being gentrified. But the friendship between the boys also echoes his previous films, as they do their utmost to keep things as they are. They’re facing a problem familiar to children as they grow up: their respective parents fall out and suddenly they’re forbidden from spending time together or even talking to each other. It hardly seems fair, but it’s friendship over. And in their case, what brought them together – that inheritance from Jake’s grandfather – has also forced them apart.
So the boys are trying to stick together in the face of adversity, even though the root cause of that adversity isn’t immediately apparent. In common with ‘Love Is Strange’ it boils down to social attitudes, except this time round it’s more to do with wealth and status. There’s also a large seam of pain running through the film, especially when it comes to losing something or somebody you love. Kinnear’s Brian is the embodiment of all that pain, looking drained by the death of his father and weighed down by the responsibilities heaped on his shoulders. The last thing he needs is an argument with Leonore, who was his father’s friend: he’d happily let her stay in the shop at the same rent, but he and his family need the money and so does his sister, who is more business minded. He’s cornered, looking like he wants to curl up into a ball and let it all happen around him.
A small and delicately drawn gem of a film, ‘Little Men’ is full of acute observations, subtlety and beautiful acting, especially from outstanding newcomers Taplitz and Barbieri. Neither the script nor the cast ever over-cook things, leaving you to absorb the film as you watch it and digest it afterwards. The story itself may be small, but it’s the complete opposite for the people involved. Its sensitivity and compassion for all the characters and their predicaments make it a small film with a big impact.