Director: Ira Sachs
PG | 1h 25min | Drama, Family | 23 September 2016 (UK)
Arriving into UK cinema with little fanfare and running just 80 odd minutes long, Little Men, from director Ira Sachs (Love is Strange, Keep the Lights On) is unlikely to change the world. But it certainly does have some pertinent things to say about the way it works. As with his previous films Love is Strange and Keep the Lights On (both of which the Smoke Screen wrote about approvingly) Sachs here has give us a restrained and insightful drama about basically good-intentioned middle class people with relationships that are inevitably defined and constrained by the economic reality around them. Preciousness and melodrama are welcome by their absence. More noticeable is an acute observation of how class consciousness and difference works.
However, whereas Love is Strange examined the pressures of modern cohabitation in an increasingly gentrified and unaffordable New York experienced by asenior years gay couple, Little Men takes the perspective of two young teens thrown together by the whims of property-shuffling parents. Jake (Theo Taplitz) is a quiet, sensitive middle schooler with a flair for drawing and painting. He’s pretty much the surface-level opposite in terms of temperament to the affably brash Tony (Michael Barbieri).Yet the two become fast friends when the death of Jake’s grandfather means his Brooklyn apartment and the shop below it that he owned – and which Tony and his clothes designer mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia) occupy at a discounted rate – falls into the possession of Jake’s struggling actor father Brian (Greg Kinnear). Facing their own money troubles (which they’ve kept Jake well away from), Brian and his wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) decide to move into Brian’s father’s place whilst details of the split of his wealth are sorted out. Jake and Tony love this new closeness. Leonor, an immigrant from Chile who hasn’t lost her accent yet, seems more wary, despite the slightly over-eager politeness directed her way from the new couple living above her. It is as if she can sense what is coming.
Sure enough, Jake and Tony’s budding friendship is put at risk when a rent dispute between Jake’s father and Leonor threatens to become contentious. Affable on the surface towards their new tenants (though it is also painfully clear they are on a rung above them in the middle class bracket), Brian and Kathy nevertheless are facing pressures from other hard-up family members to make the shop below their apartment profitable, and this means ending the far-beneath-market-value rent Leonor enjoyed under his father’s carefree arrangement. For her part, Leonor argues she and Brian’s father enjoyed a close relationship, even going so far as to imply during one of their many toxic meetings to hammer the details out that Brian neglected his father until the time came to claim his estate. She can’t afford the new rent. A collision neither side wanted is on the cards.
The growing conflict between the two sides is shrewdly – and fairly – drawn by Sachs’s screenplay, and well-handled by the adult cast members. No one is really the villain here. Outside of Leonor’s contemptuous gaze, Brian is struggling to stop his more aggressive sister from issuing legal eviction notices, begging for more time to sort this out. Brian himself is also facing a sort of unspoken crisis of masculinity too, being an actor long since resigned to low-paying theatre work with doctor Kathy now the breadwinner, and Kinnear really is superb here as a husband and father worn down by the weight of the realisation that he has somehow become the bad guy.
One thing Sachs’s script does nail, aided greatly by Ehle and Kinnear’s strong performances, is that eternal fear the genteel middle classes have of ending up on the opposite side of the righteous, and the terror they fee at the thought of the veneer of acceptable politeness cracking. Sachs is alive to how people can work overtime to avoid conflict as long as possible, to desperately build cases for their own justification, and to take advantage of private moments to whisper their desires out of the corners of their mouths. He also knows how to write dialogue and stage certain scenes that totally capture how people try really hard to pretend they don’t notice or unintentionally broadcast their own class privilege (you can see this right from the first meeting between the two families, from the sense of forced politeness, to the different accents, to certain glances made at times). For her part, Leonor doesn’t help herself by being so cold to her new landlords, making herself too much the postcard image of the ‘difficult tenant’. Had she better understood Kathy and Brian’s sense of fragility about their position, maybe she could have negotiated a better deal.
Yet for all this critical look at the dangers of gentrification, Sach’s never gets bogged down in the detail, instead letting young stars Taplitz and Barbieri show us a completely credible developing friendship. It is a relationship that probably works because they are so different and thus complement each other (Tony in particular seems to be the main cheerleader for Jake’s art), but also one that sadly can’t exist free from the conflict brewing around them, courtesy of their adults. Jake and Tony’s relationship takes them all across Brooklyn – from acting classes in run-down warehouses to club nights arranged for underage kids – allowing Sachs once more to showcase the particular sights and sounds of New York life. We root for the two friends to stick together and make the most of this undeniably charming city, and because of this investment in the duo, it is hard to avoid the sense that an actual tragedy is in the making here thanks to their parents. In this rapidly changing New York, only children can seemingly stay free from the kinds of ‘mature’ decisions that adults need to steel themselves to.