In Little Men, director Ira Sachs demonstrates how a pebble dropped in a puddle can create a tsunami. Besides an old grandfather passing away, there are no matters of life and death, but money—or lack thereof—does become a critical detail that will affect the families involved in greater ways than anyone could imagine.
The crux of Little Men is New York City real estate and gentrification. Sachs’ last feature, Love Is Strange, also took on NYC property, its protagonists negotiating the logistics of their romance after finances force them to live apart for a while. Here, the parallel is the friendship of two 13-year-old boys. Jake (Theo Taplitz) is a quiet Manhattan kid whose parents, Brian and Kathy (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle), move the family to Brooklyn after his grandpa dies and leaves them his apartment. Beneath the home is a dress shop owned and run by Leonor (Paulina García, Gloria). Leonor hasn’t had a rent increase in the 10 years since she moved in. Jake’s father, mother, and especially aunt (Talia Balsam) think it’s about time that changed—just like the neighborhood has changed.
Before Brian takes on that talk, Jake becomes best friends with Leonor’s Brooklynese-spoutin’ son, Tony (Michael Barbieri). They like the same sci-fi, and Tony wants to become an actor, just like Jake’s (struggling) dad. The truth is that Kathy, a psychotherapist, supports the family, a fact that Leonor tucks away to pull out when necessary.
And she’s prepared for what’s coming. What Brian and his sister think is a reasonable rent increase is out of Leonor’s league, and she turns cold, fast. She’s ready with guilt trips and manipulative declarations such as “I was more [your father’s] family, if you want to know, than you were” and, regarding Brian’s income, “He thought you should be more than man.” Brian’s not one to fight, but what can he do when this quiet chain-smoker lets loose? Both families somewhat illogically decide to use the boys as a strategy and keep them apart. The boys retaliate by going silent.
Though Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias don’t always nail a naturalistic tone (teenage kids don’t exactly say things to one another such as, “You’re a great friend”), the film is full of nicely observed moments: Brian breaking down in the quiet after his father’s wake, Tony crushing on a girl, both kids taking an acting class in solidarity. They’re hoping to go to the same arts high school; Tony for acting, and Jake for drawing.
The end of Little Men is extremely abrupt and, initially, puzzling. Some time has passed, but you don’t know how much. Things have changed, but you can’t tell what exactly happened. Given a minute to weigh it, though, you’ll realize that Sachs has given you just enough to supply all you need to know. It’s bittersweet, he seems to say, but so is growing up.
Little Men opens today at The Avalon Theatre.