Film Review: Little Men

A rent dispute threatens the friendship of two teenage boys in this keenly observed and well-acted drama from Ira Sachs.
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Any roster of New York filmmakers would not be complete without mentioning Ira Sachs, whose movies get to the heart of the city’s socioeconomic challenges (yes, even for middle-class white people) in a way Woody Allen’s nostalgia-tinged tales never have. Following up on Sachs’ 2014 Love Is Strange, a variation on the 1937 tearjerker classic Make Way for Tomorrow in which an old gay couple must take separate living quarters due to economic hardship, now comes Little Men, a coming-of-age story impacted by gentrification. Its sensitive portrayal of adolescent bonding and absence of true villains (adhering to the famous line from Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, “Everybody has their reasons”) make this one of the standout indie films of the year.

The life of 13-year-old Jake (Theo Taplitz) is upended when his grandfather dies and his family moves from Manhattan back into the Brooklyn home they’ve inherited. The building has a dress shop downstairs run by a Chilean woman named Leonor (Paulina García), whose outgoing son Tony (Michael Barbieri) quickly befriends the shy Jake. Tony aspires to be an actor and Jake is a talented artist, and the two boys bond over their youthful ambitions. Jake’s father Brian (Greg Kinnear) is himself a struggling actor, whose psychotherapist wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) is the real breadwinner in the family.

The closest thing the film has to a heavy is Brian’s sister Audrey (Talia Balsam), who is outraged by the low rent Leonor pays and urges Brian to get real and charge an amount more in line with the rest of the burgeoning neighborhood. But Leonor is a tough cookie who had a close and tender relationship with Brian’s dad that she uses as leverage to stand her ground. As tensions between their parents simmer, the two boys protest by refusing to talk to them (a nod, Sachs says, to similar ploys in Yasujirô Ozu’s I Was Born But… and Good Morning). Sachs and his co-screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias deserve credit for ending the impasse in a way that avoids easy, feel-good sentimentality.

The heartbreak of the film is the rich potential of the relationship between Jake and Tony and the way it is endangered by the dispute between their parents. Tony is especially good for Jake, helping him come out of his shell and gain confidence in his talent, which some of his elders don’t appreciate. The film takes simple delight in scenes of the two racing along the streets of Brooklyn on rollerblades and a scooter, showing that city life can be just as halcyon as a jaunt in the country. Sachs is especially fortunate in the casting of his two young actors: Taplitz hints at melancholy depths within his character, while Barbieri is brash but charming, with a standout scene in an acting class.

Onetime “Talk Soup” host Kinnear again proves what an subtle actor he can be, here visibly pained by the situation he finds himself in. Ehle is dependably solid, and García, who gained notice here in the title role of the excellent Chilean import Gloria, is quite formidable as the flinty and proud Leonor.

With Little Men, Ira Sachs proves himself one of the foremost movie chroniclers of modern-day New York.

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