Ira Sachs is the sort of writer/director who appreciates small, intimate moments which exist in human relationships. Just like 2014’s Love is Strange, Little Men is another deeply personal film that resonates so powerfully because it comes from such a place of truth.
Following the death of his father, Max, Brian (Greg Kinnear) relocates his family into the Brooklyn apartment he inherited. Below Brian’s family exists his father’s tenant, Leonor, who runs a dress shop, which she leased for a very affordable rate due to her close relationship with Max. She has a 13-year-old son called Tony (Michael Barbieri), who is the same age as Brian’s son, Jake (Theo Taplitz). Tony is outgoing, sporty and an aspiring actor with an incredible New York accent, which does its best to steal the film. Jake’s introverted and arty. The two boys strike up a natural friendship. Barbieri and Taplitz each possess an individual energy and screen presence; the former is particularly charismatic and undoubtedly a future star (a quick IMDb check shows The Dark Tower and Spiderman films are already upcoming for him). Little Men is less a coming-of-age story as much as it revels in the small moments, skipping beats you might expect and exploring surprising melancholy. There’s one scene in the drama club both kids attend which really allows Tony’s kinetic energy to be unleashed as he performs an exercise of emotional reflection paired with his teacher which is as surreal as it is hilarious, whilst giving us a real sense of this kid’s essence, captured in a strange moment. There’s a lot more blanks to fill in with Jake and Sachs shows great restraint not to point him in any particular direction but to spend time exploring this uncomfortable crossroads of youth.
Parallel drama unfolds between the adults, with Brian deciding to increase Leonor’s rent to something closer to Brooklyn prices, a decision which comes across as both cold and sympathetic, given Brian’s need to provide for his own family. Whilst exploring the implications of urban gentrification, the film is keen not to take sides, but to paint all perspectives fairly. The repercussions inevitably trickle down onto the relationship between the boys as they become caught in the middle of their parents’ quiet war.
There are layers of bittersweet, emotional complexity to Little Men, which makes such a simple film so compelling, without ever feeling forced of saccharine. The ending encapsulates this perfectly, managing to be heart-wrenching, melancholic and incredibly simple. It catches you off guard and it stays with you because it shows the sorts of decisions most people have made and lived to regret, the film succeeding in exploring emotions rarely shown on-screen.
Review by David Rank
Little Men is out on 23rd September in the UK. Certificate PG (UK). Running time 85 mins.