Perhaps the most memorable scene from Ira Sachs’ Little Men consists of an acting lesson that pits Tony (Michael Barbieri), one of the boys from the title, against his instructor in a prolonged mirroring exercise of action vs. reaction that escalates to shouting. It’s remarkable not least because Barbieri, age fourteen, demonstrates a vivid expressive range evoking the tenacity, spoken cadence and bravado of New York City’s most famed Italian-American actors. But also, the medium close-up of the student and teacher at odds with one another stages the generational conflict at the heart of the narrative.
Little Men is a coming of age film about the adolescent discovery that parents sometimes have needs that exceed those of their children. Specifically, it is about the life cycle of a friendship between boys that is interrupted by a real estate dispute between their families. When Jake’s (Theo Taplitz) grandfather dies, his parents Brian and Kathy (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle) move the family from Manhattan to his Brooklyn apartment. There, they also inherit the retail space in the building, occupied by a dress shop owned by Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina García). The boys, polar opposites in sensibilities and disposition, are fast friends. But trouble begins as soon as it is discovered that the rent for Leonor’s shop has never increased, and that she is paying five times less than current market value.
This is the sort of film that lingers and grows on you with its unsettled tensions. Sachs immerses viewers in a familiar gentrifying Brooklyn, using local talent for both a funeral wake and the aforementioned acting class. (Incidentally, the drama teacher has been Barbieri’s real-life instructor for the past four years). The film is the third in a triptych of different generational portraits of gay life from Sachs, following, most recently, Love Is Strange (2014) and Keep the Lights On (2012). Neither Jake nor Tony is labeled with a sexuality, but Jake’s solitude and artistic sensibilities, along with his clearly deep feelings for Tony, suggest a proto-gay boy. At a recent screening, Sachs explained in the Q&A that he insisted on leaving the question of sexual identity unresolved, and he noted that he took inspiration for the film from two primary sources — Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But… (1932) and an actual lease dispute affecting someone close to his screenplay co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias. Ozu’s influence accounts for the attention to adolescent perspective and the birth of disappointment, or in the Japanese context, a deep shame and humiliation with one’s father, while the latter story line lends realism to the plot.
At its best, Little Men swings the viewer from the small, important signs of young friendship to the uncomfortable and conflicting economic interests of adults. Tony borrows an apropos phrase he learned from Jake to charm a girl he fancies. Jake finds in Tony the only figure in his life that affirms his artistic talent for sketches and painting. They glide through the streets of Brooklyn in travelling shots on roller blades and a scooter, accompanied by Dickon Hinchliffe’s uplifting original score.
Contrast such images of youthful bliss to the excruciating encounters between adults. They are disturbing not because they reach — unlike the acting lesson — the crude pitches of shouting and insults. But rather, it is the apologetic posture of progressivism of Jake’s parents as landlords reclaiming their property rights that is painful. Especially when it is countered by the no-less subtle yet biting and incisive insight that Leonor has into the family’s life that she wields as her only defense. The hypocrisy of the white actor and his psychoanalyst wife meets the quiet brutal honesty and bluntness of the Latina tenant in an irreconcilable discomforting manner. While the film has a proper ending with a kind of finality to its narrative arch, it is these immersive glimpses at the lifespan of friendship and the unresolvable conflict of economic necessity that remain with the viewer and make Little Men worth watching.
Aaron Boalick (@FlixCritic) is a freelance film critic in New York City and Adjunct Faculty in the Film Division of Columbia University.