Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri are future stars. The titular protagonists of Ira Sachs’ Little Men give extraordinarily mature performances that belie their tender age. They feature in a perceptive, affecting family drama that channels the director’s characteristically graceful, understated and emotionally enrapturing style through a subtly crafted story of class and gentrification in contemporary Brooklyn. As in Love Is Strange – in which a gay couple were forced to vacate their residence – the threat of an eviction is paramount here.
After the death of his grandfather, Jake (Taplitz) moves into the now vacant apartment with parents Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) located above a dress shop owned by the former occupant’s long time friend, Leonor (Paulina Garcia). Her son, Tony (Barbieri), and Jake hit it off right away as two very different peas in a pod, both wanting to make it to Laguardia Performing Arts high school. Seeking to reclaim the shop for his uncaring sister (Talia Balsam), Brian sets in motion events that threaten his son’s newfound friendship. Co-written with frequent collaborator Mauricio Zacharias, Sachs’ script sketches thoroughly believable and well developed characters. We hang on every word of the boys’ interplay but the real success of Little Men is in the depth and strength of all that is not said. It isn’t really even a case of reading between lines, more of allowing nuanced words and stellar acting convey a much larger story.
Tony is seen wearing a Catholic school uniform, Jake has a Jewish last name and turns his nose up at his pal’s suggestion of eating pork but rather than being an elephant in the room religion is probably sitting in a cupboard somewhere out of sight, and largely out of mind. More important to the boys is freewheeling around their neighbourhood, Jake’s awkward Bambi legs in roller blades and Tony on a scooter. Their kinetic energy and movement, evocative of a dynamic youth, contrasts the staid lethargy and exasperation of adult woes. As the upstairs/downstairs neighbourly conflict degenerates there is never the raising of voices or slamming of doors but instead a harsh bitterness in Leonor’s remarks that she was closer to Brian’s father than he was. His limp resignation speaks volumes and his unexplored filial relationship hangs in the air.
Kinnear, cutting an unusually haggard and weary figure, puts in his best performance of recent memory as a failing actor and father-husband-brother struggling to move forward. Grief hanging from his very being at the wake, he finally allows himself a moment of quiet sobbing when putting out the trash but even this is framed in such a way that we do not see his face. Sachs’ extraordinarily humane knack for emotional restraint echoes throughout Little Men. And it is all the more profound for it. Fast-talking Barbieri is somewhere between a young James Franco and Jimmy Cagney in his swagger and extraordinary confidence: he completely steals a scene from his drama coach with rat-a-tat retorts and delivery. As Jake, less confident but no less certain in his artistic convictions, Taplitz exudes an awkwardness but calm thoughtfulness as both a character and actor wise beyond his years. An ending that could dive into schmaltz steers towards the unexpected, achieving a lasting pathos that tops off a tremendous film.
The 70th Edinburgh International Film Festival takes place from 15-26 June. For info visit edfilmfest.org.uk.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens