American philosopher William James said that, “Reality, life, experience, concreteness, immediacy, use what word you will, exceeds our logic, overflows, and surrounds it.” This statement is especially true for children whose goals and dreams are subject not only to the real problems they face but are in part determined by their parent’s ability to handle their own life. Ira Sachs’ affecting drama, Little Men, looks at life from the point of view of two young men on the cusp of adolescence whose friendship is threatened by a family squabble that has no easy solution. Co-written by the director and Mauricio Zacharias, the film follows on the heels of Sachs’ 2014 “Love is Strange,” the story of a gay couple and how they are forced to vacate their New York City residence as a result of gentrification, a theme that plays also role in Little Men.
13-year-old boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz), a non-observing Jew and Tony (Michael Barbieri), who goes to Catholic school, are drawn together when Jake’s parents, Brian (Greg Kinnear, “Ghost Town”) and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle, “Fifty Shades of Grey”), move into an apartment in Brooklyn vacated by the death of Jake’s grandfather. The apartment is located above a dress shop owned by his grandfather’s long time friend, Chilean seamstress Leonor (Paulina García, “The 33”), who has been paying a lower rent as a result of their friendship. The boys possess exceptional artistic talent. Jake is a painter who hopes that his portfolio will land him in the LaGuardia School of the Performing Arts, even as his drawing of yellow stars against the background of a green sky is dismissed by his middle-brow, middle-school teacher.
Compared to the sensitive Jake who keeps to himself and has few friends, Tony, an aspiring actor, is outgoing with excess energy to burn, a dynamo whose best scene is a back and forth exchange with his drama coach, an exercise in letting go of restraint and reaching for full self-expression. Speaking rapidly with a Brooklyn accent, Tony, who wants to join Jake in the LaGuardia School, puts on a good act of being on top of things but the sadness stemming from the lack of a father in his life is visible. One is reminded of the Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri’s reflection that, “the need to create art is often connected to a need to heal something.”
Brian informs Leonor that he has to triple her rent because his acting roles bring in little money and he does not want to have to completely rely on his wife’s income. Though he tries to reach an amicable agreement, his position strengthens Leonor’s intransigence and encourages Brian’s sister (Talia Balsam, “No Strings Attached”) to push for her eviction in order to bolster the family’s income. As their families bicker, Jake and Tony try their best to stay away from the conflict, riding their roller blades and scooters around the neighborhood with joyous abandon to the energizing score of Dickon Hinchliffe (“Locke”) suggesting that this moment of their youth will last forever. Unfortunately, however, their parents only dig in their heels, Leonor snarkily asserting that she was closer to Brian’s father than he was and Kathy tells Leonor that she is trained in conflict resolution though she does not offer any such resolution.
As Jake and Tony’s friendship becomes strained, they embark on their secret weapon — the silent treatment — but the children’s weapons against their more powerful parent’s ends, as it often does in heartfelt tears. Little Men is a thoughtful and moving film that contains some of the year’s most honest and nuanced performances from Taplitz, Barbieri and Kinnear. There are no villains in the film and each character has what is on the surface a reasonable position, but what is lost is the compassion to step back and see things from a broader perspective, one that transcends immediate needs.
Brian shows some awareness of this when he breaks down in tears while alone, suggesting that looking out for one’s own self-interest while admirable in many respects may cut us off from relationships we cherish. Little Men operates on several levels. It is about gentrification and class interests, but its most potent message is about the miracle of friendship and coming to terms with growing up. Jake and Tony have found the kind of friendship that is rare for any age. Though they are different people with different interests, they have a bond that is akin to love, one that, like other attachments in life, will not last even though it will always contain moments so real that they may forever remain etched in the core of their being.