Intentionally or not, writer-director Ira Sachs has become a chronicler of the costs, both monetary and emotional, of New York City real estate. In his last film, “Love Is Strange,” he told the poignant tale of two devoted older gay men (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) forced by financial circumstances to give up the apartment they had shared for years because one was fired from his job at a Catholic school after they married. Now he charts the threat to the friendship of two adolescent boys when their parents duel over a possible rent increase in their gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. Gentle, generous and heartwarming but also clear-eyed and sharply observant, “Little Men” proves a fitting counterpart to Sachs’ earlier picture.
Quiet thirteen-year old Jake (Theo Taplitz), an aspiring artist, moves from Manhattan with his parents, actor Brian (Greg Kinnear) and therapist Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), into the second-floor apartment of a Brooklyn building that his paternal grandfather, who’s just died, had owned, and where he had lived. There he meets Tony (Michael Barbieri), the voluble son of Leonor (Paulina Garcia), a Chilean woman who rents the space beneath the apartment for her dress shop. The two boys quickly become best friends, playing video games when they’re not out and about the neighborhood streets. They also talk about their dreams—Jake hopes to be admitted to a prestigious arts high school, while Tony is taking acting classes and wants to go there as well.
The youngsters’ bond is threatened, however, by a dispute that arises over rent. Leonor, who’d been close to Brian’s father—indeed, at one point she icily tells Brian she had been more family to the old man than he had—has been paying nominal rent for street-level space in an area that’s definitely on the economic upswing. Now Brian, pressured by his sister (Talia Balsam), who wants some return on her part of the inheritance, tries to negotiate what he considers a more reasonable sum with her. She simply refuses to address the matter, instead asking a lawyer friend (Molina) to represent her interests. When Jake and Tony find out what’s going on, they conspire to use the silent treatment on their parents in an effort to push them to find some accommodation. It doesn’t work.
This might seem a slender story, and it is; but Sachs, his co-writer Mauricio Zacharias and the cast enrich it with moments that might seem small, even trivial, on the surface but reveal the emotional complexity of the characters and their relationships. As played by Kinnear with a superficially bubbly exterior broken only occasionally by dark, angry outbursts, Brian seems an affable sort, but it’s clear that his career has not enjoyed the success he’d hoped for. He’s currently rehearsing a way off-Broadway production of “The Seagull,” a work by an author who dealt with property issues in old Russia, and at one point Leonor tells him that his father had been embarrassed by the fact that his son was dependent on his wife’s income. And while Brian is supportive of Jake’s artistic hopes, when the boy asks about some of his older drawings, his father says nonchalantly that they might have been lost during the move—and adds perfunctorily that’s it’s sometimes good just to let things go (though he’s not yet given up on his own dreams). While Leonor has obviously had a hard life, moreover, as played with cool reserve by Garcia, she’s hardly a saint. Her brusqueness in dealing with Brian proves that, as do her cutting remarks to him.
But it isn’t only the adults who receive such sensitive treatment. The boys are fully realized characters as well. Taplitz draws a moving portrait of a kid just beginning to understand himself, reaching out for the kind of fellowship the more outgoing Tony provides (and also his friend’s unrestrained praise for his artwork); and when he cuts loose in a desperate plea to his parents to find some solution for their conflict with Leonor, the effect is heartrending. Barbieri, meanwhile, is a human firecracker as Tony, exploding in his acting class exercises but showing the ache of vulnerability when he talks about his absent father, or tries unsuccessfully to connect with a pretty classmate as Jake watches with sympathy but also a touch of pain. The film’s final scene, in which the boys both (but separately) visit a museum, underscores the truth of Brian’s remark about sometimes having to let things go: Sachs is too honest a filmmaker to suggest that a happy ending is always in the cards.
For a low-budget independent project, “Little Men” is very carefully wrought from the technical perspective, with a production design by Alexandra Schaller that has no false notes and cinematography by Oscar Duran that captures the ambience of the Brooklyn neighborhood unerringly. Dickon Hinchliffe’s exquisite score conveys the juvenile joy of Jake and Tony’s odysseys beautifully.
Like “Love Is Strange,” this is a tale that could easily have descended into heavy-handed melodrama, but Sachs maintains a subtly revealing tone that makes his film far more profound than its surface narrative might suggest—just as Jake and Tony emerge as rounded characters wiser than their years, and in many respects than the adults around them—though with a degree of empathy characteristic of the film’s overall approach, the grownups’ imperfections are treated with understanding rather than condescension. Like a cinematic diamond with many facets, “Little Men” says a great deal, but in whispers one has to be ready to hear.