Review: Little Men

Michael Barbieri and Theo Taplitz excel in Ira Sachs quietly devastating and subtle family drama. One of the year’s finest films.

A late addition to my schedule at this year’s MIFF, writer/director Ira Sach’s Little Men proved itself a wonderful find indeed. A tale of two young boys on the precipice of their teen years and the bond of loyalty that overrides the complicated, though thoroughly mundane, feud between their families, it’s a deeply affecting film lightly told.

A dab hand at subtle emotional drama that accrues slowly enough as to be almost imperceptible then hurting your heart before your fully aware it’s happening, Sachs previous work Love Is Strange was a little hamstrung by an implausible set-up and a strange lack of focus, even if it did feature fine performances from John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as an middle-aged gay couple.

Little Men, on the other hand, is one of his finest, and arguably one of the year’s most intricate emotional dramas too. It’s difficult to put into words exactly why a film whose main plot point, at least on the surface, is a rancorous disagreement over retail rent is quite so moving. Certainly one of the reasons the impeccable casting of the boys.

Michael Barbieri, in particular, is a star in the making, all bravado and swagger and intelligent heft far beyond his tender years as Tony, an aspiring actor whose dressmaker mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia) runs a little fashion store below a large apartment in a fast gentrifying neighbourhood in Brooklyn.

He first encounters the shy and bookish Jake (Theo Taplitz) at the funeral of the latter’s grandfather, the man who owned both the apartment upstairs and the shop downstairs. And therein lies the problem.

Leonor enjoyed a close relationship with Jake’s grandfather, hence why they were at the funeral, and why the rental agreement between them was way below market value.

Far from down and out, Jake’s mum Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) is a well-meaning psychotherapist who has been supporting the family in a small Manhattan apartment while the stage career of his actor father Brian (Greg Kinnear) has more or less stalled.

With the inheritance money from Brian’s dad, they can now move in the Brooklyn pad and enjoy a much more comfortable life, which also has them considering a rent hike downstairs to more appropriate levels, with extra pressure from Brian’s sister Audrey (Talia Balsam), who stands to profit too.

The increasingly close relationship between the boys is a spanner in the works, with Brian all the more reluctant to broach an awkward conversation, even though it hangs heavy over every encounter between him and Leonor, intensely aware that Tony is pretty much Jake’s only close friend.

As an increasingly bitter cold war rumbles between the families, Leonor is not above throwing in Brains; face the fact she spent a great deal more time with his father spent far more time with him in his final years than he did. Kathy’s attempts at conflict resolution, invoking her day job, hardly helps.

Sachs and Love Is Strange co-writer Mauricio Zacharias avoid easy solutions, with each of the adult characters childish in one glance, trying to play fair in another, with all the complicated layers and contradictions that make up the realities of everyday life. No one is vilified, nor are they exonerated.

As this plays out, the film’s most intense relationship plays out between their sons. That Jake goes to private school and Tony public is on no consequence to them, and they both plan to go to the same arts school, Tony to act, Jake to paint, but the socio-economic differences between them are far more pronounced to their parents, as is so often the way for young people not yet fully exposed to the litany of stupid prejudices accrued by many adults.

If a skateboard scene in Love is Strange seemed an odd choice for closure, the boys scooting around town here is joyous, punctuated by intense video game sessions, and when they both go on a silent strike at home, it is as amusing as it is achingly sad.

Barbieri may be the real stand out of the piece, but Taplitz is also to be commended for doing a great deal in a much quieter role, with his one real explosion its most powerful moment.

That their friendship might be sundered as they’re strafed by the collateral damage of the argument between their parents is truly heartbreaking, with Little Men a film of rare beauty as a result, with its final moment sublime.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords