Ira Sachs’ latest drama feels like it could take place in the same universe as his highly acclaimed “Love is Strange.” Of course, both are intimate character pieces about families unexpectedly uprooted from their normal lives in New York City, but it is the delicacy of Sachs’ approach that makes them feel so similar more than the details. Sachs is a filmmaker interested in realistic human behavior. He loves shots of people going about their daily lives, working in stores or playing soccer in a park. He so gently and believably uses space and setting that the characters within it feel like they occupy the real world, never once coming off like authorial mouthpieces or manipulative creations. In fact, many moviegoers would call “Little Men” slow, and probably lament its overall lack of traditional action. To be fair, this short film (85 minutes) could have used another beat or two to flesh out its characters in a more dramatically satisfying way, but there’s no denying that even though the issues of “Little Men” may seem slight in comparison to the stakes of other films, they are character-building for the two boys at its center.
Those two boys are played by breakthrough stars Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri, a pair of performers so natural that it practically feels like they’re playing themselves. Taplitz is Jake, a sensitive pre-teen who’s more interested in sketching than acting like a kid. We first see him in a loud, raucous classroom of kids acting stupid; Jake sits there drawing. Several times in “Little Men,” we see other young boys doing more “traditional” NYC boy things while Jake skates by. He’s not antisocial or awkward, just interested in other things. He meets the more gregarious Tony (Barbieri) at his grandfather’s funeral. Tony’s mother Leonor runs the clothing store on the first floor of a building that was owned by Jake’s grandfather. Now, Jake and his family (including parents played effectively by Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle) are moving into the apartment above Leonor’s store. Jake and Tony becomes instant friends, partially drawn to each other for their artistic commonality as Tony is an aspiring actor. They’re both a little different, both a little sensitive, and both the kind of kids who are loyal to the family and friends.
Just as the bond between Tony and Jake feels like it might be a life-long friendship, the reality of the adult world intervenes. It turns out that Jake’s grandfather had been giving Leonor an incredible discount over the years, never even raising her rent as the neighborhood has improved over the years. The going rate for a business in the area is $5k and Leonor is barely paying over $1k. It can’t be that low forever, even as Leonor claims that she was family for Jake’s grandfather, maybe even more than anyone else. She says that he would have wanted her to stay and she can’t afford a rent increase, but Jake’s struggling actor lifestyle, and a sister who really wants her half of the profit from the new property, lead to conflict. Interestingly, the conflict is never directly between Jake and Tony, but parents who threaten to disrupt their friendship.Sachs has a remarkable ability with performers, drawing the most genuine work out of Kinnear in years, and really allowing Taplitz and Barbieri to realistically inhabit their roles. Sachs makes films with no easy villains. Can you blame Jake’s father for wanting to raise rent to even a semi-reasonable level to help provide for his family, including a son who wants to go to a fancy arts high school next year? Can you blame Leonor for noting that she was literally there, in the same building as Jake’s grandfather, getting him cigarettes and supporting him socially? She was more family than his real family. Why is she the one who has to leave? Sachs doesn’t give us clear heroes or villains in “Little Men,” which feels like one of the lessons Jake and Tony learn about the gray reality of the world. It’s also a film about that turning point in our lives when we realize our parents are human beings too. It may not be the kind of movie that contains traditional melodrama, but it is ultimately about defining events in the lives of two families. For them, the stakes couldn’t be higher.