New York is too amorphous and fluctuating to finger any one filmmaker as its definitive chronicler. But what incredible inspiration Ira Sachs has pulled from the city in three films in swift succession – and what artistic dividends he’s paid it back. Keep the Lights On (2012) used the evolving city as a backdrop to the souring of a long-term relationship, while Manhattan’s ruinous rent hikes fueled the conflict in Love Is Strange (2014). With the alert and empathetic Little Men, Sachs’ latest (co-scripted with the same writing partner, Mauricio Zacharias), real-estate stress wrecks its ball again.
At the film’s beginning, young Jake (Taplitz) and his parents – Brian (Kinnear), a barely-working actor, and Kathy (Ehle), a psychotherapist shouldering the family’s bills – move into a Brooklyn brownstone inherited from Brian’s late, estranged father. The first floor is rented out to a struggling dress shop owned by Chilean émigré Leonor (García), a longtime tenant and close friend of Brian’s dad. She has a son, Tony (Barbieri), the same age as Jake, and the two kids become fast friends. These little men are both alike and opposite. Jake is shy and frequently bullied, while Tony is a quick-witted gadfly. But they share the same artistic spirit: Jake has a talent for drawing, and Tony wants to be an actor.
”Coming of age” stories are typically more conceptual than literal. Unless the movie is Boyhood, the camera is likely not going to be rolling the day a boy’s voice drops. But Sachs and his bright, quick, young actors still convincingly convey a crucial passage of time – that heady transition from boyhood to quasi-manhood, from guilelessness and benign blindness to those bewildering first steps into the adult world; and, more bodily, from childish cuddles with the parentals to straightened spines and a growing confidence in negotiating the world on their own.
Jake and Tony were going to grow up anyway, eventually, but that’s hastened here by the polite war that erupts between Brian and Kathy – cash-strapped and wanting to raise rent on the dress shop to match gentrified Brooklyn’s prices – and Leonor, who can’t make rent but argues just as reasonably that her shop has a place in the community, and her friendship with Brian’s father makes her de facto family.
Nobody’s a monster here, and that’s the subtle, aching rub of Little Men: Everyone is right in their claim, depending on the right angle, be it economic, sentimental, moral, or fraternal. That rent struggle steers the plot, but it’s Jake and Tony’s coming of age and communion of souls that thumps Little Men’s heart the hardest.
Midfilm, they take part in an acting class for kids. Their teacher – played by character actor Mauricio Bustamante, with a countenance robbed by era from its rightful place in a Lubitsch ensemble – schools them to observe everything, and use it for their art. That’s Sachs’ mission, too. Little Men’s best stretches are wordless: observing the boys unloosed in the world (Tony on a Razer scooter, Jake shaky on Rollerblades), observing Tony work up his nerve to awkwardly dance across a sticky floor to ask a girl out, while Jake watches from the bleachers, and observing Jake at a museum, his hair grown out and inching closer to having grown into his skin. Jake at the museum is a spoiler of sorts – it’s the final sequence of the film, and it privileges Jake’s perspective, one little man knighted from the title’s more expansive little men. That’s no accident. “Privilege” is one of the unspoken words in the film’s war between grownups, and war has a terrible trickle-down effect. I forget: Is it that war makes men of us all, or monsters?
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