The Zookeeper's Wife
Has many lovely and moving moments but fails to capture the many layers of this unique story, relying instead on plainly-stated metaphors.
Ira Sachs' 2014 film "Love Is Strange" told the story of a longtime couple (played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) forced to live apart because of the reality of New York's real estate market. The film was devastating in its emotional impact. "Little Men," Sachs' follow-up, tells the story of two families, living and working on one block in Brooklyn, and has the same fraught background of relationships and real estate. The script, co-written by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, does not stack the deck one way or the other. Looking at the situation in "Little Men" is like looking through a prism: what you perceive depends on the angle. It is reminiscent of Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation," a similar story of the clash of two families from different backgrounds and classes. "Little Men" doesn't reach the humanist tragedy of "Love Is Strange," but that's an unfair comparison since very few films achieve what "Love Is Strange" does. "Little Men" is extremely powerful in its own right, with its devotion to its characters' differing perspectives so refreshing in an increasingly black-and-white world.
When Brian (Greg Kinnear) inherits his dead father's Brooklyn brownstone, it is a step up for him and his family. Brian is an actor who doesn't make much money, and his wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) is the breadwinner. But even she doesn't make enough to purchase a brownstone. Their 13-year-old son Jake (Theo Taplitz) is a quiet, artistic boy who has a hard time making friends. All of that changes when they move into the brownstone. On the ground floor is a dress-making shop, there for decades, run by Leonor (Paulina Garcia). Brian's father had liked Leonor, and gave her a break on the rent, allowing her to stay even as the neighborhood gentrified around them. Brian's sister (Talia Balsam) thinks Leonor should be evicted to make way for a more profitable tenant but Brian hopes for a compromise. He attempts to open up a conversation with Leonor about altering the agreement she had with his father. To say this does not go well is an understatement.
"Little Men" is only 85 minutes long, and its brevity works in its favor. The mood is compressed and urgent. Leonor's 13-year-old son Tony (Michael Barbieri) is a gregarious, friendly kid, and he and Jake strike up an unlikely friendship. They have a lot in common, mainly their ambition for their futures. Jake is serious about being an artist, and Tony wants to be an actor. They roam the streets, Jake wobbling on roller-blades, Tony zipping along on a kick scooter, Brooklyn passing in a blur, music surging up around them. (These shots repeat. They are explosions of wordless emotion.)
In the adult world, however, things go south fast. Brian finds Leonor not only intractable, but openly unfriendly. Leonor goes against every unexamined assumption about "class" that Brian probably didn't even know he had. He doesn't say this, but it is clear he expected her to be grateful that she got a break in rent for as long as she did. Leonor is not grateful, not deferential to his supposed higher status. She sucks down smoke from her cigarettes like a fuming dragon. She's not afraid to go for the jugular. As the war intensifies between the parents, the boys find themselves caught in the middle.
"Little Men" has a melodramatic set-up out of 1930s agitprop theatre (landlords vs. tenants). Melodrama for some reason has a bad reputation, seeming to suggest soap operas or three-hanky weepers, but melodrama has always been one of the most effective genres for social and economic criticism because down on the ground things really are that important. There is nothing melodramatic about losing one's home and livelihood. It's life and death to the people involved. Sachs' approach to melodrama is human-sized and almost casual, one of his greatest gifts as a director. His shots are careful but not over-determined or showy. He is interested in the rhythms of everyday life and how those rhythms are disrupted when events accelerate.
Greg Kinnear is superb as a man torn in many different directions, the most secret one being his disappointment at how his life has turned out, and his conflicting emotions when confronted with the artistic ambitions of his young son. His frustration at Leonor's attitude shows the residues of entitlement that have helped form and warp his personality. Brian is ashamed that his wife supports him financially, but it's something he can't allow himself to say out loud.
The two young actors playing Jake and Tony are so natural that it feels like they strolled in off the street and started improvising. "Little Men" does not condescend to ambitious serious children. Tony takes an acting class in what appears to be the Meisner technique, and seeing him in action during a repetition exercise (a great scene) is important because it shows Tony's desires are not theoretical. He wants it. Tony is fearless; Tony is easily intimate with other people; Tony is open.
Paulina García gives one of the best performances of the year as Leonor. To Greg and Kathy she is a maddening witch-like creature, but that's only because they look through the prism at their own angle. García keeps her performance controlled, with surging explosions of rage and contempt churning beneath the surface. She's terrifying. She's terrified. When she crushes her cigarette out on the sidewalk, you can picture Brian and Kathy's faces underneath her shoe. She is not a villain. She is fighting for her life.
Native New Yorkers watch a lot of films and television shows set in Manhattan and think, "The apartments are too big. The hallways are too wide. I had to cut my bedframe in half in order to get it up the stairs." Sachs does not have a tourist's mentality towards the city. The apartments are cluttered and cramped, people are on top of each other in any given space. New York is (increasingly) just for the rich, with entire neighborhoods driven out of existence by rising costs. When a city forgets or ignores its own past, what else is lost in the process? Loss is the air that "Little Men" breathes.
At the end of Stephen King's "It," narrator Bill Denbrough muses: "He thinks that it is good to be a child, but it is also good to be a grown-up and able to consider the mystery of childhood ... its beliefs and desires ... it's nice ... to think that childhood has its own sweet secrets and confirms mortality, and that mortality defines all courage and love." The friendship of Jake and Tony in "Little Men" carries that kind of bittersweet weight. Jake and Tony hold hands over the growing abyss between their parents. They're only 13 years old. Do they know that relationships are fragile and need protection? Do they understand how precious their friendship is, how much they need to hold onto it, how much they will miss it if it ends? These questions carry intense reverberation long after the film ends.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...