It takes 12 minutes and 23 seconds to run from Jake’s apartment to Tony’s, but there’s an entire world in the space between their two Brooklyn homes. Thirteen-year-old Jake (a sensitive and severely empathetic Theo Taplitz) is a white fourth or fifth generation American kid whose grandfather — the longtime owner of a small apartment building — has just passed away. Tony (Michael Barbieri, a pint-sized Robert De Niro) is the son of a Chilean immigrant, and his mother — a sharp seamstress played by “Gloria” star Paulina García — has rented the retail space on the ground floor of that same apartment building for as long as anyone can remember.
For years, the two families of these new friends have lived in harmony, but the times they are a-changin.’ And when Jake’s father (Greg Kinnear), a struggling actor, inherits the real estate and insists that his tenants actually begin paying their full rent, it’s the youngest generation who become the latest casualties of their city’s class warfare.
Ira Sachs’ smallest film in more ways than one, “Little Men” is a crushingly beautiful coming-of-age story that suggests the director only grows sharper as he narrows his gaze. Following the shattering “Keep the Lights On” and the bittersweet “Love Is Strange,” Sachs’ third consecutive movie about life in the margins of the metropolis further solidifies his status as one of New York City’s most insightful ambassadors, delicately marrying the displacement that defined his previous work with a newfound sense of possibility. A nuanced portrait of a city in flux (or decline) that uses the impressionableness of adolescence to shake our own understanding of gentrification and its residual effects, “Little Men” is that rarest of beasts: a truly hopeful heartbreaker.
Tony and Jake (especially the more introverted Jake) are at the point in their lives when every shift in the atmosphere, every glancing comment, is capable of completely reshaping their worlds. These are the formative years when pre-teens begin to petrify into real people, and it’s telling that the film begins in a classroom, ends on a field trip, and spends much of the time in between following its young leads as they bounce from one learning environment to another. Jake wants to be an artist, and a lame criticism from one of his teachers makes him question if life will let him draw outside the lines. Tony dreams of becoming an actor (he’s the only character who genuinely respects Jake’s dad, who’s seen performing in an airless off-broadway performance of “The Seagull”), eager for a future in which he’s allowed to assume other identities.
All of this potentially saccharine and suffocating material is handled with such natural delicacy that its full effect doesn’t hit you until after the movie is over — there are only a small handful of scenes that aren’t seen from either Tony or Jake’s POV, and one of the great accomplishments of Sachs’ unobtrusive direction is how organically he returns viewers to the wide-eyed wonder of being a little man in a big city. He understands that childhood is inherently cinematic, and Dickon Hinchliffe’s plucky score shimmers with the feeling that New York looks like a completely different place when you’re four feet tall.
These are kids who are swamped in the process of becoming, kids who haven’t yet settled into the fixed understandings that plague adults. Money, for one thing, is never an immediate issue between Tony and Jake, even as it looms over their future in the form of some slightly muddled business about the fancy high school they both want to attend. But there are certain socioeconomic realities that can’t be ignored, and as their friendship deepens and they’re forced to defend themselves against their parents’ legal woes, the film assumes a low-key “When Harry Met Sally” vibe: Can people of different classes really be friends? Or does money always get in the way?
“Little Men” is often at its best when it cuts through the natural optimism of its younger characters. One of the most fascinating dynamics is that between their mothers — when Jake’s mom (a grounded Jennifer Ehle) visits Tony’s and tries on a dress, it seems as though a shared feminine or maternal bond might help them to cut through the bullshit. The toxicity that eventually settles between them is damning.
Tony’s father is out of the picture (although the great Alfred Molina, playing a family friend, drops by for a cameo), and so Jake becomes something of a reluctant surrogate. Kinnear, playing a Greg Kinnear type, does an excellent job of threading the needle between graciousness and greed — it’s not the most sympathetic of characters, and Tony’s mom burns him with the fire of a thousand suns when she claims that she loved his father more than he did, but Kinnear sells the difficulty of his dilemma. Of course, it never occurs to the guy that he could give up on his creative aspirations and pursue a career that might allow him the freedom to buy Tony’s family a break, but Sachs’ film cuts to the core of how following your dreams can be a particularly insidious kind of privilege.
“Little Men” is a modest movie, maybe even a touch too modest to grapple with every aspect of its central crisis, but Sachs’ unwavering humanism reverberates with twice the scale of “Suicide Squad.” If the film is weighted towards the white kid, and ends (with tremendous grace) by focusing on what he might take away from another person’s trauma, there’s a good reason for that: The gentrified don’t need to learn the human cost of being displaced — the onus is on the gentrifiers to recognize the true price of pricing people out. “You’ve gotta learn to let go,” Jake’s dad tells him. Sure, but you have to learn how to hold on, as well.
“Little Men” opens in theaters on Friday.