Directed by Ira Sachs
Starring Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Barbieri, Theo Taplitz
Released on 23rd September 2016
When you’re a child, you don’t always get to choose your own friends. Adults have a nasty habit of getting in the way, especially if they happen to fall out. All of a sudden, you’re not allowed to play at your friend’s house, or even speak to them. It hardly seems fair, but it’s usually means the friendship’s over.
The one at the centre of Ira Sach’s Little Men is a new one. Teenagers Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri) are pushed together when Jake’s grandfather dies and the boy’s dad, Brian (Greg Kinnear), inherits a large apartment and the shop underneath, which is rented by Tony’s Mum, 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 that the rent for the shop is far too low, especially for what is an up-and-coming area. Leonore can’t afford to pay more and, despite the boys fighting against it, their friendship starts to unravel.
If you saw Sach’s previous film, Love Is Strange, you’ll know he’s back on familiar territory. Geographically, in New York, mainly The Bronx which is being gentrified, but also emotionally. His previous film was about a gay couple in a long term relationship who married and then had to sell their flat when one of them lost his job. Here, it’s a new friendship but, once again, one of them stands to lose his home and the two are separated. What brought them together has forced them apart.
An undercurrent about gentrification runs through the story, with Jake’s parents representing the change coming to the area. They would never see themselves in that way, but Leonore certainly does and it’s a change that she’s powerless to stop. The forlorn little shop she struggles to keep going pales into insignificance against the sparkling new stores on the main street. Her resentment, and the income gap between the two families, means they have different values. More precisely, the parents do. The boys have similar aspirations, wanting to go to a school of performing arts, and they don’t see the barriers that are all too obvious to the adults.
Primarily, Little Men is about sticking together in the face of adversity, even if that adversity isn’t immediately apparent. In Love Is Strange, the enemy was social attitudes. And it’s the same here, except this time they’re more to do with wealth and status. It’s also about pain, exemplified by Kinnear’s Brian exemplifies, who looks totally drained by his grief at the death of his father. The last thing he needs is an argument with Leonore, who was also a close friend of his father’s: he’d happily let her stay at the same rent, but he and his family need the money and so does his sister, who is the more business minded of the two. He’s cornered and looks like he just wants to curl up into a ball and let it all happen around him.
Neither of the boys have brothers or sisters, but it’s Jake who’s the more typical only child. He’s quiet, happy in his own company reading and drawing and doesn’t have many friends, so his father is pleased when he buddies up with the more extrovert Tony. He’s more comfortable in his own skin, starting to get interested in girls and generally more gregarious. And both Taplitz and Barbieri are tremendous, which is saying something in a year where we’ve seen a lot of promising young talent on the screen. How many of them will actually develop into big names is impossible to tell, but these two have to be in with a more than reasonable chance.
A small and delicately drawn film, Little Men is full of acute observations and subtlety. Neither the script nor the cast ever over-cook things, leaving you to absorb and digest the film afterwards. And it’s something of a slow burner, lingering in your mind afterwards with moments coming to the fore as you start to piece it all together. The story itself may be small, but it’s anything but for the people involved. Also released on VOD this week, it works equally well on the small screen or in the cinema. Its sensitivity and compassion for all the characters mean it’s a small film that makes a big impact.
Little Men is released in cinemas on Friday, 23 September and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 22 September.