Writer-director Ira Sachs uniquely knows New York City and continues to explore its neighborhoods in his latest indie gem, Little Men. After previous looks at city life in Keep the Lights On and Love Is Strange, Sachs sets his sights on the coming-of-age tale of two 13-year-old boys whose budding friendship is undermined by the business conflict between their parents. Isn’t that always the way with grown-ups — messing everything up?
Jake (Theo Taplitz) meets Tony (Michael Barbieri) after his grandfather dies and the family inherits Grandpa’s Brooklyn home. That home includes a bottom-floor unit that is a dress shop run by Tony’s mom, Chilean immigrant Leonor (Paulina Garcia). The boys become fast friends as they traverse the streets of New York and discover that they both also want to attend the La Guardia School for the Arts. Tony wants to be an actor; Jake wants to be an artist. As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), problems arise when Jake’s dad Brian (Greg Kinnear), a struggling actor currently starring in an experimental play in a small theater, decides that Leonor has been paying far too little rent in her lease. He intends to raise it substantially, virtually forcing her to move since she can’t make ends meet with the additional financial burden. Leonor maintains that she was a lot closer to Grandpa than his own family, but the conflict between the adults — which also includes Jake’s mom Kathy, a psychologist played by Jennifer Ehle — makes life difficult for their kids, who are caught in the crossfire of all of this. No one is really the villain here, though. Both families are just trying to get by as best they can in an ever-changing environment.
Sachs, with help from his co-writer Mauricio Zacharias, definitely comments on the gentrification of New York’s older neighborhoods and the human toll that takes. Meanwhile, much of the emphasis is rightly on Jake and Tony, who become immediate BFFs despite being worlds apart in terms of personality and despite their parents becoming just the opposite. Sachs , a fan of classic coming-of-age movies such as Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and The World of Henry Orient, which starred Peter Sellers, knows how to get natural performances out of kids and has done so in casting two charmers who make it all look easy. Barbieri is a real live wire, a force of nature, while Taplitz matches him perfectly. Kinnear is nicely grounded, even underplaying the father. Ehle adds nice support, and Garcia, so great in Chile’s recent Gloria, gets some strong moments. Talia Balsam offers a sympathetic ear to her brother Brian’s dealings with Leonor as someone looking for her own cash-out in this sticky situation. And it’s nice to see Alfred Molina, so great in Sachs’ Love Is Strange, back working with the director, even in a minor role like this one.
Magnolia Pictures releases the film appropriately in New York City on Friday, followed the next week in Los Angeles and a slow national rollout.
Do you plan to see Little Men? Let us know what you think.