Ira Sachs makes beautiful, intelligent films that are filled with smart observations about his characters (often middle class families and/or couples). Little Men, his latest, sees the American writer and director returning to subject matter that he also covered in last year’s poignant and moving Love Is Strange: gentrification. In that earlier film a couple played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina were priced out of the New York neighbourhood they’d lived in for years, but also temporarily separated as they searched for somewhere new to live. Despite being able to call on the generosity of neighbours and family members in times of help, ultimately house prices had risen so steeply the two men could no longer afford to live together in the area of their choosing, and were subsequently kept apart for much of the film. In Little Men, we see similar events from several different perspectives as a family inherits and then moves into a building in Brooklyn.
Sachs also explored family and inter-generational dynamics in Love Is Strange, and that’s something he returns to here as well. Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle play Brian and Kathy Jardine, who move into the property in question with their teenage son Jake (Theo Taplitz). We discover that Brian is struggling to make a living as a stage actor and that Kathy – a psychotherapist – is the family’s breadwinner, though even her relatively-high earnings are not enough to support their lifestyle, which includes Jake’s school fees. The Jardines move into an upper floor apartment, while in the same building on the ground floor Leonor Calvelli (Paulina García) has owned and run a clothes shop for a number of years. Judging by the amount of time we see Leonor in the shop behind a sewing machine she is a hard worker, though the longevity of her business is also due to the leniency of the previous landlord – Brian’s father – who enabled her to keep trading by charging a small amount of rent each month. Brian and Kathy have plenty of compassion but no great attachment to their new neighbourhood, and with pressure from his sister Audrey (Talia Balsam) combining with his own financial concerns, Brian is forced to increase the rent on the shop. This leads to strained relationships with Leonor, whose own son Tony (an excellent turn by newcomer Michael Barbieri) has formed a fast friendship with Jake.
Much of the film concerns Jake and Tony’s friendship, which may or may not include a degree of sexual attraction on Jake’s part (Sachs wasn’t keen to be drawn on this when pressed in publicity interviews, arguing that he felt it was unimportant). The two teenagers are from different backgrounds but they soon find they have a lot in common, and they become very close very quickly. However, the story gradually becomes more concerned with the way that adult behaviour and decisions made by the boys’ parents impacts on their friendship; the escalating clash between Leonor and Brian over the shop – which is surprisingly gripping in and of itself – ends up ruining what looks like a stable, promising relationship as the two boys get unwittingly caught up in matters (they are used, rather unfairly, as pawns).
Both of the younger actors give terrific performances, the highlight undoubtedly being Barbieri’s scene in an acting class, during which he is forced to rapidly trade lines with the teacher, though it’s Taplitz who really shines during the film’s final and most poignant moments, which seem to offer a resigned shrug about class divides in modern New York. Their two characters are the ‘little men’ of the title, but the phrase also refers to Brian, who has not lived up to his father’s expectations (and is cruelly reminded of the fact by Leonor on more than one occasion). Kinnear is such a dependable actor, and his scenes with both García and Ehle are uniformly excellent. In fact it’s one of the strongest ensemble pieces I’ve seen this year; Sachs is clearly able to coax consistent, unshowy but solidly-impressive work out of his actors, and it’s nice to see Alfred Molina joining in too, albeit in a brief supporting role. The film and the characters are well-written, and Sachs continues to prove himself as a talented purveyor of low-key, sympathetic, modern New York stories.
Directed by: Ira Sachs.
Written by: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias.
Starring: Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri, Greg Kinnear, Paulina García, Jennifer Ehle, Talia Balsam, Alfred Molina.
Cinematography: Óscar Durán.
Editing: Mollie Goldstein, Affonso Gonçalves.
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe / Tindersticks.
Running Time: 83 minutes.