Boyhood in Brooklyn: Coming-of-age meets gentrification in Ira Sachs’ ‘Little Men’

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No, the new film Little Men is not Louisa May Alcott’s 1871 sequel to her 1868 Little Women. It is Ira Sachs’ 2016 puberty prequel to his 2014 Love Is Strange.

In both movies, for young and old alike, real love is cruelly crushed by real estate.

Consider the Strange case: John Lithgow and Alfred Molina marry after 39 years of togetherness, but a disapproving archdiocese fires Molina as the choir director of a Catholic high school, creating economic hardships for the newlyweds that cost them their co-op and force them to live separately with each other’s friends and family.

Similarly, the budding friendship—maybe even bromance—of two 13-year-old Little Men is left to wither and die on the vine when their parents have a property-rights tug-of-war over a Brooklyn dress shop. It’s run by a Chilean single mom (Paulina Garcia), who paid little rent to her soulmate-landlord, but when he dies his money-strapped heirs feel they’re within their rights to triple her rent or kick her out.

Money and class are the two primary movers in the movies of Ira Sachs. “Life cannot be separated from economics—that’s the way I would say it,” the writer-director clarifies. “It’s always deeply part of the characters and the drama in all of my films.

“In all moments, we’re somehow defined by the way that we deal with questions of money,” he elaborated in an interview with Fandor’s Keyframe website. “The term gentrification is a specific term for how neighborhoods are changing now, but I think that it’s also general questions of economic transitions that cities and families have always been going through.”

The two teenage title-players come from opposite coasts and temperaments—which is fine with Sachs: “For me, I thought of Tony as a Scorsesian kind of actor and Jake as somebody Robert Bresson would use. I wanted to keep Jake still and use him like a model, and Tony—I wanted to let him go and be free in a different sort of way.”

Theo Taplitz from L.A. is the shy, sensitive wannabe artist, Jake, and Michael Barbieri from Greenwich Village is the energetic, extraverted actor-to-be, Tony.

Being opposite types, the boys attract easily and begin bonding over videogames and long talks, but the money-grumbling of the grownups weighs heavily on them. Trying to defend—indeed, save—their new friendship, both boys stop talking to their parents, hoping the silent treatment will bring them to some kind of accord.

Jake’s dad (Greg Kinnear, amiable as ever) isn’t one for barricade speeches except as an actor, which he is here—an underpaid one who could use the money. His wife (the excellent Jennifer Ehle) is the breadwinner-in-residence, a psychotherapist. Both get prodded to legal action against Garcia by Kinnear’s nudging sis (Talia Balsam).

Sachs has drawn this conflict so evenhandedly that audiences are constantly changing sides. “What I find is that allegiances shift a lot in the course of the film,” he observes. “Sometimes they’re with Greg, sometimes with Paulina. Really, we tried to construct that shifting of allegiances by making it not too easy for any character to appear like the victim or the villain. I think we did that by leveling the playing field economically. It’s not the super-poor, just-off-the-boat immigrant family fighting the wealthy landowner. It’s really two families fighting for a space in the middle class.”

After one screening of Little Men, someone told Sachs that his film was reminiscent of a line in Jean Renoir’s classic Rules of the Game: “Everyone has their reasons.”

“I like remembering that line because it sort of reflects the conflicting motives here.  Everyone has their own reasons for doing what they do in this film—like in life.”

Garcia’s quiet, steely resolve against her landlord’s relatives helps balance the battle, too. “I love Paulina’s work here,” Sachs beams. “I love her bravery as an actress. She makes some very strong choices, and the result is that she’s fascinating to watch.”

In point of fact, Garcia seems to be the only adult around who’s aware an unstated and unformed love story seems to be going on between the two boys. It is possible to go through this whole film enjoying the subtext, imagining Jake is secretly falling in love with Tony but doesn’t know how to express it or that it’s even happening.

“What I try to do is create scenarios in which the audience can find their own way,” admits Sachs. “That’s something film does beautifully. It allows for the associative connection, so that the audience associates their own memories to the images and to the story. I want to leave room for that in my films. That’s the kind of movie I like.”

Beyond the two boys and the three parents, there was a sixth character—Garcia’s wayward husband who’s off in Africa—but the role was eliminated from the final cut. “Andy Karl did a beautiful job of this character, too, but I realized that the film really works as a chamber piece. It’s about these five individuals who are locked together in this conflict, and you needed to keep the focus very tight and contained.”

Opening August 5 from Magnolia Pictures, this is the third film in a row that Sachs has co-written with Mauricio Zacharias. Their first, 2012’s Keep the Lights On, played it perilously close to the nerve—a fictionalized version of the chaotic ten-year love affair Sachs had with an addict.

 “I would say that they were torn apart by addictions, but also it was just the history of life for gay men of my generation,” suggests Sachs, who is 50. “That means that we learned about intimacy in shame and in secrecy, and it’s hard to disengage from that. I think that makes for a difficult relationship—the legacy and weight of that.”

Should you care to call this film trio a trilogy, Sachs won’t put up an argument. “It is, in a way. I made three individual films, but they’re three films about three different generations of relationships in New York. And, in a way, it’s a circle that goes on. The question of the boys in Little Men is that we don’t know what’s next for them. We just hope that it is not as difficult as what life was for the men in Keep the Lights On.”

Given the pronounced New York milieu in most of Sachs’ movies, it’s not easy to detect his creative echoes of Yasujiro Ozu, the late Japanese filmmaker. Love Is Strange, in fact, is a modern-day Manhattan reworking of Ozu’s 1953 Tokyo Story—plus a tidal splash of suds from Leo McCarey’s 1937 Make Way for Tomorrow (where Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi suffered the same separating fate as Lithgow and Molina did). Orson Welles once said, “Make Way for Tomorrow could make a stone cry,” and when McCarey won his 1937 Oscar for directing The Awful Truth, he famously remarked, “You’re giving me this for the wrong picture.”

Little Men turns out to be equal measures of Ozu and real life. “This film is a very loose remake of two films by Ozu, I Was Born, But… and Good Morning. Both are films about kids who go on strike against their parents. One was silent and black-and-white and made in the ’30s; the other was talking and color and made in the ’50s.

“As we started to form a plot for the film, Mauricio would come in every day telling me stories about his folks in Rio who were in a contracted battle with a woman they were trying to get out of their store. I kept hearing bits and pieces of this story and thought, ‘That’s a good plot, and also there are two sides to this story,’ so basically we merged the Ozu story with the Rio story and came up with the plot of Little Men.

“For me, my films are always very personal. I bring a lot of my own experiences to them and the experiences of those close to me. My husband and his mother came from Chile to Williamsburg when he was ten. She was a single Latin American woman, and he was an artistic kid who ended up going to LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, so that—too—became part of the story. I hope that if I put a lot of my own life into it, there’s a level of authenticity that people will connect to.”

LaGuardia High is the goal of the young Tony in the film, and the actor who played him—Barbieri, still 13—was just admitted there. He studies at the Lee Strasberg School, coached by Mauricio Bustamante, who shares an acting-class scene with him in the film. For his next, Barbieri will have a key role in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Next for Sachs is a little something for HBO. “I am writing a film about Montgomery Clift. I’m not the first to try it—Sidney Lumet spent years trying to get a film made about him, but he never got it made—so we’ll see if this ends up getting made.

“When I started looking into Clift’s life, I found it very compelling and surprising. He was an artist who never left New York. He wanted to make work that he cared about. He always seemed to be revealing himself in his movies. He was struggling, certainly, with the place of his sexuality in both his work and his life, so I identify with a lot of that. His death, in a way, was like Prince’s in that his body couldn’t handle what he was putting in it—plus the emotional pain he was holding onto.”

In January 2012, Sachs married Boris Torres, a Chilean artist ten years his junior. A week later, they became parents with Kirsten Johnson of twins—a boy named Felix and a girl named Vira. Johnson is a film documentarian whose soon-to-be-released Cameraperson won awards this year at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival, the RiverRun International Film Festival and at fests in Sarasota, San Francisco and Montclair, New Jersey. As in Little Men, there are three parents at work here raising children. Which sounds as if Sachs won’t have to travel far for the plot of his next feature film.