The final film in a trilogy focusing on New York City, Ira Sachs’ latest feature Little Men, starring Jennifer Ehle and Greg Kinnear, follows the rites of passage of two thirteen-year-old boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri). Jake is a sensitive loner whose artistic talents are derided by his school teacher and initially ignored by his parents. By contrast, Tony, an aspiring actor, is confident, well-liked, and effortlessly connects with both adults and kids his own age. They meet after Jake’s grandfather dies.
Jake’s parents Brian (Kinnear) and Kathy (Ehle) inherit the old man’s Brooklyn apartment and the store below. This is rented by Tony’s Chilean mother, Leonor (Paulina Garcia), a seamstress who sells handmade clothes. Brian is an actor and, not having had a properly paid job for some time, lives off his wife’s earnings as a psychotherapist. He comes under pressure from his sister (Talia Balsam) to substantially increase the rent on the store with disastrous implications for Tony’s mum. As Leonor is quick to point out, Max had been a friend, was supportive of her work and wanted her to stay after his death. She’s also not above reminding Brian that he rarely visited his father and so is unaware of the attachment they formed in his final years. Meanwhile, Tony gets Jake to join the local drama group.
As adult relationships deteriorate, their friendship blossoms. Tony gives Jake the encouragement he lacks from his parents and suggests that they both join the same high school specialising in the arts. They watch video-games together and share their aspirations. When the adults’ tensions becomes apparent they decide to give them the silent treatment. But their friendship is sorely tested when Jake’s parents begin eviction proceedings against Tony’s mother. Little Men is a tender portrait of two boys on the cusp of adulthood. Part of the film’s power resides in the emotional minutiae captured by the camera: Jake’s flicker of pain when he discovers his father has thrown out many of his drawings in the move from Manhattan to Brooklyn; Tony’s fleeting misapprehension as he attempts to comfort his mother. Sachs is also strong on the psychological complexity of familial relations.
One of the most moving moments in the film comes when Jake breaks his silence with his father after seeing him perform in Chekhov’s The Seagull. In floods of tears he tells him how much they had admired his performance in the desperate hope that it might soften his hardline stance towards Leonor. Barbieri and Taplitz give stunning performances, Ehle and Kinnear make convincing New Yorkers, and Sachs proves that extraordinary films can be made about ordinary lives. The eponymous little men are given a harsh induction into the real world but, as Sachs demonstrates, the adaptability of teenagers – as opposed to the intransigence of adults – helps them to weather life’s storms.
Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop