In Little Men, the new release from the accomplished though lesser known among mainstream audiences Ira Sachs, there are no explosions, no masked men or apocalyptic threats. There are no characters introduced to seed a sequel. There is no scene after the credits or toy tie-in. Set for release this weekend while Warner Bros/DC’s latest, Suicide Squad, marauds its way across 4,000 plus screens in cinemas across America, the film is perhaps the prototypical example of counter programming. The story of two families, a real estate squabble that threatens to tear them apart and the two young boys caught in the middle, Little Men sets out to remind us that movies can and should tell stories of all shapes and sizes.
The lads lost in the shuffle of their parents’ conflict are Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri). Tony’s immigrant mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia) operates a dress shop in a little building in Brooklyn. When Jake’s grandfather, the landlord of the building, dies, the upkeep is left to Jake’s parents, Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle). Leonor has benefited from an extremely generous lease that allowed her to run her shop with the most minuscule of overhead generated by her business, but Brian and Kathy (as well as pressure from Brian’s sister to ensure their inheritance is financially viable) cannot justify her tenancy at such a reduced rate. Raising the rent puts incredible pressure on Leonor’s way of life, and drives a wedge between the two families all while Jake and Tony (who meet for the first time when Jake’s family moves into the apartment above Tony’s mother’s shop) become fast friends. The friendship of two adolescent boys, it seems, is just the sort of angle to get lost in the morass of these grown-up problems.
Ira Sachs’ career has been defined by his ability to shine a light on the everyday problems that plague real human beings, and that trend continues with Little Men. This is Sachs’ second straight film that hinges on New York real estate (2014’s excellent Love is Strange focused on a gay couple’s struggle when one of the two partners loses his job when they finally marry, and they find themselves suddenly unable to afford their apartment), and while the adults of Little Men generate the conflict the drives the film forward, Sachs’ choice to frame the quarrel through the eyes of innocents drawn into their wake brings the consequences into sharp relief. Both families are at least in some way justified in their beliefs; Brian and Kathy need to raise the rent to approach market value keep Brian’s sister off his back (their careers as an actor and therapist respectively also aren’t particularly raking in the dough), while Leonor has operated her entire business, and by extension entire livelihood, based on the agreement she had with Brian’s father. But all the kids see is their parents arguing and keeping the two of them away from each other out of spite, a result especially tough on Jake, an awkward little man who has enough trouble making friends to have a family feud get in the way of his one true companion.
Little Men’s greatest asset is its verisimilitude; one needs not to have lived in New York and seen its specific brand of gentrification first hand for the film’s themes to resonate. Sachs’ screenplay (co-written with frequent collaborator Mauricio Zacharias) is filled with moments plucked from mundane experience effortlessly transferred to the silver screen. It is a quiet film with its conflicts playing out through heightened argument and tense negotiation, all while these two poor, neglected boys try to live their lives in a way that resembles normalcy, even as Jake’s feelings for his new, rakishly charming friend flirt with something a bit more complicated than platonic companionship (Little Men may not be a “gay” movie in the strictest sense like previous Sachs projects Love is Strange and Keep the Lights On, but those themes remain close to heart). In taking the approach it does, Sachs must place prodigious trust in the capabilities of his two teenage leads to carry the brunt of emotional weight, and the two young thespians he has pulled from obscurity (neither had a significant credit prior to this film) give revelatory performances. Barbieri, with his gruff, New York Italian accent in the realm of Pacino, is a magnetic presence, mysterious and aloof in his confidence (you can see why a shy and impressionable kid would be taken by him) but Taplitz is especially captivating. He imbues Jake with a soulful and painful vulnerability, so true to life that he extracts empathy from the audience with preternatural skill. These are the sorts of roles criminally overlooked in end-of-year awards seasons (especially for summer releases), which would be quite a shame, as the work of these two young thespians stands up to any other performance this year.
The boys may be the focus, and they may be the highlight of Little Men, but that should not diminish the work done by the adults of the cast, all of them providing the pathos that makes the film feel as essential as it does. Ira Sachs has never worked with big stories with big consequences and big budgets, but Little Men proves once again that he can make a comparably small tale titanic. The summer may be ruled by the mega-blockbusters that gross the GDP of tiny countries at the box office, but there is still room for alternatives for those who seek respite from collapsing buildings. And in a summer defined by these tent poles often leaving audiences and critics alike wanting, the timing has never been better to venture to the other side of the aisle and check out a story about two families dealing with the difficult realities of a complex world and the fragile teenage lives they can unwittingly throw into turmoil. It’s not sexy storytelling, but it is profoundly affecting in its own unique way. A little more variety in the summer can’t be a bad thing, especially variety as powerful and affecting as Little Men.