Two years ago, veteran indie filmmaker Ira Sachs delivered his best movie to date, “Love Is Strange,” a muted New York drama that starts with a joyful gay wedding and then builds into a profound study of family obligations and generations in transition. Sachs’ latest, “Little Men,” is as modest as its title, and lacks the quiet majesty of its predecessor. But it covers a lot of the same ground, using NYC as the backdrop for a simple story, about a small personal crisis that represents something much larger.
While “Love Is Strange” is focused on the old, “Little Men” skews young. Theo Taplitz plays Jake Jardine, a sweet-natured, artistic junior-high student who moves from Manhattan to Brooklyn with his psychotherapist mother Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) and stage-actor father Brian (Greg Kinnear), after the latter’s dad dies and wills Brian his brownstone. Jake immediately befriends a local boy his own age, Tony Calvelli (Michael Barbieri), who’s popular, athletic, and a natural-born ham. The two of them roam the city together, enjoying their easy camaraderie.
The problem is that Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina Garcia), runs a not-that-successful dressmaking business out of the Jardine building’s first-floor storefront. While Brian’s pop overlooked Leonor’s inability to afford any rent increases, his kids want the income they could earn by kicking her out. Brian feels pressure from his sister and his wife to force the issue, while Leonor all but ignores the threat of eviction, refusing to hear any of the Jardines’ offers. Both sides behave as though the problem will just resolve itself, as though somehow either Leonor will just pack up and go or Brian will be persuaded to follow in his father’s footsteps and let the dress shop stay. Meanwhile, Jake and Tony respond to the financial dispute by giving their folks the silent treatment — which only serves to make everyone testier.
As he did with “Love Is Strange,” Sachs follows the stories of children and adults in parallel, showing how sometimes people living in the same space can be preoccupied by very different dramas. In the case of “Little Men,” the tug-of-war between Brian and Leonor very quickly becomes symbolic. Brian — who mostly lives off his wife’s income, and lets people take advantage of his agreeability — begins to see the eviction as a referendum on his manhood. For her part, Leonor doesn’t even try to hide her disgust at how the Jardines would value money over a longstanding arrangement made between friends.
The kids, on the other hand, spend their days playing video games, talking about their favorite YA fantasy novels, and preparing their applications for a prestigious art-focused high school. As Sachs alternates between what’s happening with the teens and what’s up with their parents, he catches a lot of what life in the city in 2010s is like — from the vital cultural resources to the way economic opportunities make enemies out of neighbors. One of the big points of “Little Men” is that even though Leonor’s an immigrant just scraping by and the Jardines are established urban professionals, both families feel like they’re just one bad break away from being beaten by the city.
“Little Men” isn’t an openly political film, by any means. It has a light tone overall, and while it’s only 85 minutes long, Sachs and his co-writer Mauricio Zacharias tell their story via what initially seems like loosely connected vignettes that only gradually coalesce into a movie. While the process unfolds, “Little Men” comes off as almost aggressively minor. Only in retrospect does something like a lengthy scene where Leonor offers Kathy a very slight neighborly discount on a dress make more sense, as an example of how Leonor can be as chilly and calculating as she accuses the Jardines of being.
At multiple points, it does look as though Sachs is going to ramp up the melodrama — by having the manly Tony get put off by Jake’s effeminate qualities, for example, or by having Brian call the cops on Leonor. Instead, the movie just keeps watching and never judging. Maybe Jake’s gay, and maybe Tony would be bothered if he realized it. Maybe Brian’s being too hasty in forcing a woman out of business. Maybe Leonor’s being unreasonable to expect that she can keep occupying prime Brooklyn real estate on the cheap. The beauty of “Little Men” — and of the director’s work in general — is that it displays a rare understanding of how the world works. Sachs sees the way New York City’s gears grind. He’s awed at how it can be both glorious and cruel. [B+]