Directed by: Ira Sachs.
Written by: Ira Sachs & Mauricio Zacharias.
Starring: Greg Kinnear (Brian Jardine), Paulina García (Leonor Calvelli), Jennifer Ehle (Kathy Jardine), Theo Taplitz (Jake Jardine), Michael Barbieri (Tony Calvelli), Talia Balsam (Audrey), Alfred Molina (Hernan).
Little Men is a delicate, controlled film – one fraught with emotions that the characters struggle to maintain. In most films like this, you would expect things to descend into yelling and histrionics – but because the film is directed (and co-written) by Ira Sachs, it never does. He has a talent in taking melodramatic situations and keeping them on an even keel – not allowing them to become soap operas. His last film, Love is Strange (2014), was a kind of update on Leo McCarey’s 1937 classic Make Way for Tomorrow – where an elderly couple had to move with separate children when they lose their home and none of their children can deal with both of them. McCarey’s film is a melodrama to be sure – but a restrained one (especially for the time). Love is Strange is even more restrained – as it chronicles the lives of its gay couple at the center – played brilliantly by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow – as they lose what they have built together. Sachs does McCarey one better – he doesn’t see anyone in the film as the bad guy (unlike the ungrateful children in Make Way for Tomorrow) – but rather as well-meaning people who, because they live in New York, barely have the space for themselves let alone anyone else. Little Men takes the same approach.
The story here is about two families. Brian (Greg Kinnear), is an actor, who makes no money, and allows his wife, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) to support him and their 13 year old son, Jake (Theo Taplitz), When Brian’s father dies, he inherits his old brownstone in Brooklyn – and it’s a step up for the family from their cramped Manhattan apartment. The catch is that the lower part of building is a storefront – which Leonor (Paulina Garcia) has been renting from Brian’s father for years to run her dress shop. Brian’s father never increased her rent – which is now an absurdly low $1,100 per month – in a changing neighborhood, where a similar space could fetch up to $5,000. To this basic setup, Sachs introduces more complications – Jake is a quiet, shy, artistic boy, clumsy and unathletic, with trouble making friends. But, he immediately bonds with Tony (Michael Barbieri), Leonar’s son, who is Jake’s opposite in many ways – outgoing, athletic, etc. The two bond over video games, and their own artistic ambitions – Jake draws, Tony wants to be an actor. Then there is Brian’s sister Audrey (Talia Balsam) – who wants Leonor to either start paying the right rent, or get out. In many movies, she’d be the villain – but she isn’t here – she may seem rather heartless towards Leonor – but her point is valid. After all, Brian and his family gets to live in a big new apartment when their father died. What did she get?
Paulina Garcia’s performance as Leonor is one of the best you’ll see this year. There is a quiet fury about her – and she doesn’t act the way Brian and his family expect her to. She is stubborn to a fault – and can actually be downright cruel to Brian. She hasn’t had a contract with Brian’s father for years – they were friends, she didn’t need one – but that has left her unprotected. When Brian approaches her with a new lease – asking for more money – she pretty much refuses to respond. She belittles him – knowing precisely what buttons to push to get under his skin, and expose his insecurities. What she says reveals perhaps why Brian didn’t see much of his father in the last few years of his life. Again, though, Leonor isn’t the “bad guy” in the movie either – she’s merely fighting for her life, her store, her livelihood. She cannot pay more in rent – she barely makes enough even with the low rent – so she fights with the only weapons she has at her disposal.
While this low-key melodrama between the adults is going on, the two boys grow closer – we see how they interact with each other, their small, unsure steps towards girls. The two young actors are completely natural and unforced – we see them together, and how different they are then when they are around people – how unguarded. That kind of instant connection that runs deep for kids that age – and that they may never get back again. Through no fault of their own, they’re drawn into the world of their parents – all of the adults try to protect the children from the reality, but eventually, it’s going to come through. The final shots in the movie are sad in a way it’s tough to put your finger on – something has been lost for both of these kids – and they’re not going to be able to get it back.
Sachs makes the kind of films that don’t immediately impress upon the viewer just how good, how deep they are. You don’t come out of his films with your mind blown, raving about what you’ve just seen. Yet, what he does do is make films that haunt you afterwards – for days, weeks, months even, you find your thoughts drifting back to them. That’s the kind of film Little Men is – and that’s a rare thing.