Ira Sachs has a proven track record of crafting incredibly small, intimate, and melancholy films that manage to warm your heart. His 2014 effort, Love is Strange brought us a downbeat but lovely tale of the difficulties of long-term relationships and how money worries alter them at their very foundations. Little Men, Sachs’ latest film, shares a thematic connection with its predecessor, but with a profoundly different sort of relationship at its core. Where Love is Strange focused on a couple with decades of history, Little Men centres on a newly built, but still very close, friendship between two 13-year-old boys. What is most impressive about Sachs’ wonderfully humanist new movie is that, despite the freshness of the relationship and the general fleetingness of most connections made at 13, the stakes are never treated as trivial, making for a very moving story with two fantastically believable child performances.
These two friends are Jake and Tony (newcomers Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri), brought together when Jake’s grandfather dies, leaving his family the Brooklyn apartment above the shop run by Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina Garcia). Jake’s a quiet artist and plays off of Tony’s effusive, outgoing energy perfectly; Tony, an aspiring actor, shares Jake’s love of the arts, and it’s not long before they’re making plans to go to LaGuardia Performing Arts school together. Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias’ script wastes no time in making these boys the best of friends, and never plays their differences for cheap conflict.
Instead, the danger comes from the adult world as Jake’s parents Brian and Kathy (played with care by Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle) inherit the lease on Leonor’s shop alongside their apartment and are forced by circumstance to go about increasing the rent. As the adults argue about money, they widen the pre-existing gulf in class between one another that, tragically, their sons have no real comprehension of.
Both Taplitz and Barbieri are real finds, and while credit must surely go to Sachs for summoning such spirited performances from his child actors, there’s a clear intelligence in these displays that are entirely the boys’ own. Taplitz taps into the struggles of an artistic kid trying to navigate this newfound world of teenage masculinity with keen insight and Barbieri is a true revelation. His charisma, even at a very young age, is palpable, and he’s blessed with a great sense of comic timing. Neither of the boys put a foot wrong, and you can easily see yourself or one of your childhood friends in all their interactions.
When the parents butt heads over leases and loyalties (Leonor constantly reminds Brian that she was closer to his late father than he was), it creates ripples of anger within you. Their threatening of Jake and Tony’s connection is heinous, but Sachs makes sure that the only villain of the piece is the universal concern about money. Brian and Kathy are perfectly within their rights to ask for more money, especially as Brian’s acting career has ground to a profit-less standstill. Leonor handles the whole situation so consistently poorly that her character, who in a less interesting film would be the obvious underdog hero, may be the closest that Little Men comes to having a proper antagonist.
Little Men works as a both a simultaneously life-affirming and saddening snapshot of life in Brooklyn, as well as a carefully considered look at the world through the eyes of a teenager. Displaying a clear-eyed and deep understanding of all his subjects, from young friendship to class to the changing fabric of New York, Sachs has made another small but essential study of relationships to add to an already quietly impressive portfolio.