Ira Sachs was shooting a chase scene. This should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the delicate, understated dramas that have become Sachs’ trademark ever since his first feature, a tale of closeted gay youth called “The Delta,” 20 years ago. Sachs’ Sundance-winning “Forty Shades of Blue” tracked the intimate familial complications of a music producer past his prime, while his last two features, “Keep the Lights On” and “Love Is Strange,” delivered measured looks at queer urban identity against the backdrop of modern gentrification. Only 2007’s “Married Life” included the hints of a thriller, but it was something of a red herring in the context of a plot about well-to-do couples scheming against each other. But this chase scene was a different story — evidence that Sachs wanted to try something different.
It was August 2015, and Sachs was at the Brooklyn Museum, shooting a climactic sequence for “Little Men.” While characteristically low-key, it marked his first feature primarily focused on adolescence. Pre-teen pals Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri) become fast friends when Jake’s parents take over as landlords for the shop where Tony’s mother works. But when rent goes up, the family’s relationships go sour—jeopardizing the boys’ ability to get along with each other. Sachs had written a scene in which, after the young characters stop speaking to each other, one of them goes on a field trip with his fancy private school to the museum, while his former friend stalks him from afar.
In between takes, Sachs explained that he had been looking at Brian De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill” for inspiration. “There is an element of suspense,” he said, but just as quickly noted a much gentler source of inspiration from two child-focused films by Yasujiro Ozu (“Good Morning” and “I Was Born, But…”). However, as Sachs talked through the theme of his story, even the chase took on greater meeting. “This is a film about two boys becoming themselves, both as artists and individuals,” he said, his voice dropping to a whisper as the cameras started to roll. “It’s not a coincidence that it ends in a museum.” Then he went silent, watching his characters exist in a tranquil environment rich with feeling.
As usual with Sachs, the New York setting and unspoken tensions between characters during transitional moments in their lives speak louder than any sweeping plot development. So it came as no big shock five months later, when “Little Men” premiered at Sundance, with no chase scene to be found. Sachs dropped the bit in the editing room in favor of a more ambiguous exchange. “I needed to be very efficient with both the storytelling and the emotion while not being too directive,” Sachs explained later. “There’s an economy to it.”
Needless to say, “Little Men” adds to Sachs’ expanding oeuvre of immersive New York stories that address grand themes with small gestures. Having recently turned 50 and raising two kids of his own, he no longer aspires to work on a massive scale. “It’s not my dream to enter the system,” he said, shrugging off the possibility of attempting a studio project. “If I’m going to engage, I can only do it well if I do it my way.”
And so has insisted on final cut for his last three projects, working with a revolving set of financiers who contribute in piecemeal so that he’s never beholden to any single entity. “I worked extremely hard to create a sustainable career,” he explained, adding that “Little Men,” with its focus on the ballooning housing market, taps into his own anxieties about maintaining control of his world. “How do you hold onto instinct within a system?” he asked.
It wasn’t a purely hypothetical question: Sachs will go out on a limb with his next project, a biopic of Montgomery Clift, which he’s developing for HBO. He admitted that this time, he would have to rescind some authority over the outcome. “I can’t have final cut,” he said. “There’s a board of directors, it’s a whole corporation. That would be a false depiction of reality.” But he’s finding confidence in maintaining his vision “by continuing to believe that my most valuable asset is my personal creativity.”
“Little Men” shows that even as Sachs returns to similar motifs each time out, he has a flexible style. While “Keep the Lights On” included awkward bedroom scenes and “Love Is Strange” emphasized characters on the verge of old age, “Little Men” translates his sensibility to a younger audience. “I hope this film will give younger people an introduction to a different kind of cinema than they’re finding in all those Marvel movies,” said Sachs, who regularly takes his children to the “Film Forum Jr.” screenings of classic titles in the West Village. “There’s a real loss in all that.”
Sachs’ parenthood informs his depiction of the struggling parents in “Little Men,” including Jake’s sullen father (Greg Kinnear), who takes over the lease and raises the rent on the building where Tony’s mother (Paulina Garcia) works as a seamstress. The ensuing territorial war has a trickle-down effect beyond the adults’ control. “The decision processes they go through impact the children in complicated ways,” Sachs said. “The challenges of being a good parent are the challenges of being a good individual.”
Such underlying moral questions percolate throughout Sachs’ films, which speaks to their unique appeal. Regardless of the grim conflicts at their center, his narratives maintain an underlying warmth rooted in modern struggles to communicate — often across barriers of age, class and gender. No matter which audience he’s addressing, Sachs positions these heady situations in decidedly human terms. “It’s a challenge, but I’m ultimately a storyteller and an entertainer,” he said. “I’m as interested in making people cry as anybody.”
“Little Men” opens in limited release on August 5.
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