Childhood friendships are delicate enough without interference from the grown-ups. Ira Sachs’ thoughtful family drama Little Men begins with a bond bubbling up unexpectedly between two boys from very different backgrounds thrown together by circumstances. But circumstances change, and it’s the consequence of parental agendas on the boys’ newfound friendship that’s explored in Sachs’ small-focus tone poem of a film.
The story revolves around 13-year-old Jake (a very poised performance from newcomer Theo Taplitz). A quiet kid who loves to draw, Jake lives in a comfortable, upper middle-class apartment in downtown Manhattan. The family housekeeper comes to meet him after school while his parents are at work.
His mother, Kathy (the always-radiant Jennifer Ehle), is a psychotherapist whose income supports the family. His father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), is a stage actor; he loves the theater, but most of the work he gets is in small nonprofit theater companies that don’t pay much. When Jake wonders why he’s no longer auditioning for Broadway shows, his dad tells him he’s become “adaptable.”
One day after school, Jake gets a phone call from an uncle he hasn’t seen in years, sending condolences on the death of the grandfather he barely knows, Brian’s father, Max. Brian inherits the building he grew up in, a Brownstone in Brooklyn, and moves his family in. The property includes a storefront on the ground level, a dress and tailoring shop run by immigrant seamstress, Leonor (Chilean actress Paulina Garcia, who was so great in the film Gloria a couple of years ago).
On the day the family moves in, Leonor’s son, Tony (Michael Barbieri), offers to help carry in some of Jake’s stuff. He’s blown away by Jake’s drawings, and when they discover they both love the same video games, the boys hit it off. Leonor brings a cake upstairs to the after-funeral gathering that she says was Max’s favorite, and Kathy buys a dress in Leonor’s shop.
But trouble brews when Brian, his sister, Audrey (Talia Balsam), and Kathy, decide they have to raise the rent on Leonor’s shop to something approaching market value. Single mom Leonor can barely make the rent as it is, and while Brian understands that Leonor and Max were friends, and his dad kept the rent affordable so she could stay there, Brian needs the extra income.
Sachs manages to present every viewpoint without heroes or villains. (Except maybe the scheming Audrey, reminding Brian that she didn’t inherit the house, and deserves further compensation from the rental.) Brian feels guilty that his wife pays the bills, and tries to come to terms with Leonor to avoid eviction. For her part, Leonor is not above subtle digs that she was more “family” to Brian’s father than he was.
The boys watch in perplexity as their parents find ways to curtail the time they spend together. “Our parents are involved in a business matter,” Tony says to Jake. “It’s getting ugly, so they’re taking it out on us.” In retaliation, they decide to stop talking to their parents, which further aggravates everybody, but is no more effective than Kathy’s “conflict resolution” skills in solving anything.
The impact of this adult drama on the boys is the soul of the movie. Tony is a real Brooklyn kid, gregarious and feisty; he plays soccer with the guys in the park, but he wants to be an actor, dragging Jake along to an after-school acting workshop for kids. But hanging out with Tony is an even bigger deal to Jake, who’s too shy to make friends easily. When we see the two of them (from two different schools, and two different worlds) racing around the neighborhood together on scooter and skates, we realize all that’s at risk from their parents’ impasse.
There’s no easy resolution to the story, and Sachs doesn’t try to impose one. Instead, he offers a wistful coda in which Life, inevitably, goes on.
*** (out of four)
With Greg Kinnear, Paulina Garcia, Theo Taplitz, and Michael Barbieri. Written by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias. Directed by Ira Sachs. A Magnolia Pictures release. Rated PG. 85 minutes.