Little Men (2016) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG for thematic elements, smoking and some language
Running Time: 85 min.
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Theo Taplitz, Paulina Garcia, Michael Barbieri, Alfred Molina, Talia Balsam
Director: Ira Sachs
Screenplay: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias
Review published September 12, 2016
Jake (Taplitz) is an artistically gifted but introverted 13-year-old kid whose therapist mother Kathy (Ehle, Fifty Shades of Grey) and actor father Brian (Kinnear, Heaven is for Real) relocate from Manhattan to Brooklyn when they take over the abode of the recently deceased father Brian barely spoke to anymore. The properties inhereted also contain a modest dress shop run by a middle-aged Chilean immigrant named Leonor (Garcia, Gloria), who also has a son, Tony (Barbieri), around the same age as Jake. Tony quickly befriends actor-in-training Jake, but difficulties arise between the two families when the lease on the shop is found to not exist, and a major readjustment to the very low rent she had been paying to the grandfather is proposed to keep up with the skyrocketing property prices in the radically changing Brooklyn neighborhood they reside in.
Directed and co-written by Ira Sachs, who earned some critical looks with his look at an older same-sex couple struggling to make it in today's New York City in Love is Strange, Little Men continues Sachs' exploration on a much younger bond of friendship between two young teen boys caught in the middle of a financial struggle between a woman just making enough to get by and a couple who could also use the money to help stay afloat on basically one income. There are no villains of the piece, but plenty of attempts to persuade gone wrong, as everyone begins to show an unseemly passive-aggressive side, hoping to resolve things in a calm and easy fashion, but the only option seems to be to try to just stop communicating to one another.
Other than the refreshingly novel idea to build a story around, the strengths of Little Men lies in the quality of the cast, especially in the introduction of the two young men, Taplitz and Barbieri, for whom this film represents their first work in a feature film. Their friendship comes quickly and naturally, with each partner in it balancing out the other's weaknesses -- one would gather they'd be friends for life if given the chance. Unfortunately, feuding parents makes their bond something that may rely on external factors to continue. Although presented as merely a business matter, it turns into a personal conflict before the first conversation is over.
While the story may seem slight to build a feature film around, it is, nevertheless, a story well told, with many memorable aspects to admire, from the fine-tuning of the characterizations, the solid locale work, and the presentation of a difficult dilemma to ponder over that many of us have no doubt experienced in our lives -- the erosion of the bonds between friends, families, and gentrifying communities that can occur when money is in the equation. The grandfather could never raise the rent on Leonor because, she relates, he loved her (it's not discussed whether that love had been platonic or romantic), but the new tenants, who don't have deep-seated affection, think their new offer is more than fair. She won't even look at the number, gathering that the love and will of the grandfather should continue to take precedence in the situation. The sting of the financial hardship pales to the bruising of the pride in the asking.
In another context, Little Men also shows the difficulties of trying to earn a living as an artist of any sort -- whether an actor, painter, or designer of dresses -- and the financial obstacles to success that are often in play in the lives of those who seek to create to earn a living. Somehow, there is little monetary value placed in things that can provide great meaning to many. Or, in yet another layer, it's about the struggle to make life decisions as a parent, especially ones that will provide a hardship to one's children, such as sudden relocation and the potential separation from the only strong friendship their child has ever known. The stress of economics spurs on the difficult and delicate dance we all try to dance around, trying to put on our best face and hoping that the person on the other side will understand that money is wanted and needed by pretty much everyone in this society, even if it will eternally be an emotionally erosive topic to bring up to those we care about.
©2016 Vince Leo