Like his last film, Love is Strange, Ira Sachs’ Little Men is a film about transition. It starts with the death of a grandfather, which leads 13-year-old Jake (Theo Taplitz) and his family (dad played by Greg Kinnear, mom by Jennifer Ehle) to move into his Brooklyn building – an upstairs apartment and a downstairs retail space, currently occupied by a failing clothing store. The grandfather had long kept rent low for Leonor (Paulina Garcia) so she might stay in business, but Jake’s parents have no such attachments. He, however, has become fast friends with Leonor’s son, Tony (Michael Barbieri), no small thing when he’s regarded as the weird kid at his own school.
Sachs co-screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias pull no punches with their premise, seeing it all the way through to its inevitable conclusion. But they do imbue so much of the film with warmth and honesty. This is not a film about the harsh realities of capitalism, but the harsh realities of ourselves. Brian (Kinnear) and especially Kathy (Ehle) do not want to kick Leonor to the curb. Just the same, his acting career is not making the sort of money he used to and she’s stretched thin as a psychiatrist. Whether he could pick up another line of work is not considered, unless that other line is as landlord. Brooklyn shop spaces command very high rents now; why shouldn’t he benefit from this? What sort of duty do we have to one another, to our families, to our communities?
That Sachs shifts the viewpoint of these fairly adult concerns to the vantage of the boys is a stroke of genius. They have more than their share of typical childhood concerns – growing interest in girls (or in Jake’s case, perhaps not), school work, video games, huge ambitions (Jake is pursuing painting and drawing, Tony acting), and the simple pleasure one gets at a young age of having unfettered access to another’s thoughts and concerns. Taplitz and Barbieri navigate all this quite well, even in the face of Sachs’ sometimes-too-knowing dialogue, which either reflects the way kids sometimes talk in the hopes of sounding more adult, or is just dialogue not written with an ear for how kids really talk. The uncertainty here is enough to make me think the latter, as the boys never really slip into less-ornate speech patterns (though perhaps the title is more telling than I’m giving it credit for), but anyway it’s a minor concern when their topics of discussion and expression of them is absolutely honest.
We’re let into the adults’ world slightly more than they are, just enough to know that they can’t really see what’s coming, and aren’t mature enough to tackle it head on once they do. Jake’s parents know that his friendship with Tony is unlikely to survive their feud, but are unprepared to manage that either. Kathy falls back into her safe territory as an impartial mediator, as her profession often demands. Brian tries to find ways to relate his situation to Leonor, as an actor might. And she plays hard on whatever love he may have for his late father, constantly emphasizing how much he loved her and her shop. It’s a low move, but she has few other recourses, and Sachs is smart enough to not let her become a pure victim. Her pride gets the best of her as often as Brian’s selfishness, the entitlement he feels to continue on with a profession that’s not working out in the face of ruining someone else’s livelihood.
Sachs has such a delicate touch that any cruelty is reflexively de-emphasized. He assumes the best of everyone, even at their worst, seeking always to understand them and thus better reflect the changing world. Anyone in any major city has seem the effects of gentrification, which is not driven by a desire to drive out all the poor people of a neighborhood, but simple decisions like the one Brian and Kathy make. This generosity is remarkable in an era of cinema – big and small – dead set on cohesive conclusions and world views. For Sachs, people are almost uniformly decent; but they’re all kinds of other things too.