Starring: Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina Garcia
Director: Ira Sachs
As humans, we have an instinctive connection with other members of our species. We love each other, we hate each other, but we always have an opinion about each other. Ask yourself the last time you failed to form an instant opinion on anyone you met. The most successful pieces of art use humanity as subject matter. Shakespeare did not write Champion the Wonder Horse for a reason. Our intellects enjoy having these instincts sculpted at the folly of a writer or filmmaker; the fall of the once great, the rise of the once downtrodden. It’s the basis of all great entertainment. This is where most of the summers superhero blockbusters have fallen flat. Blow stuff up as much as the budget allows but without some sort of bond with its characters, a film will be nothing more than a series of explosions. In which case you might as well spend two hours watching insane Russian gymnasts doing handstands on semi-constructed skyscrapers in Yekaterinburg and save the cinema ticket. It’s refreshing then that Ira Sachs attempts to redress the balance somewhat with a wonderful character piece about two families thrown together by circumstance in New York.
When 13-year-old Jake’s Grandad dies, his family find themselves the beneficiaries of the old man’s shop in Brooklyn, currently leased out to a quiet dressmaker called Leonor. With Jake’s father Brian (Kinnear), a relatively unsuccessful actor, and mother (Ehle) a psychotherapist working double shifts to make ends meet, they move from their Manhattan apartment to the living quarters above the store. Here Jake makes friends with Leonor’s streetwise son Tony as the family seem to quickly and happily settle into their new environment. The idyllic nature of their new life quickly becomes strained though as Brian approaches Leonor with news of a rent hike to bring her lease in line with the rest of the shops in the rapidly gentrifying area.
Little Men keeps its plot lean. Sachs’ focus here is the relationships between all main characters and the effects the necessary business deal has on all concerned. Almost immediately, there is a bond between characters and audience and, as the narrative develops, it is impossible not to firstly take, then frequently switch, sides.
Jake’s introverted interest in abstract art and Tony’s extroverted love of acting cement their unlikely friendship in spite of their obviously clashing dispositions. The boy’s bond ambles expertly between nonchalant mateyness and inexperienced emotional probing, with both young actors putting in performances worthy of artists twice their age. A good job too, as this was always going to be Little Men’s principle stumbling block, the success of Sachs’ screenplay hinged solely on excellent performances from its youthful mains.
The grown-ups excel too. The development of Garcia’s Calvelli’s Leonor is a wonder to observe. The quiet, polite skins of the traditional dressmaker are gradually peeled away to reveal surprisingly stubborn fierceness and snarling self-righteousness. Kinnear’s Jardine passes her on the opposite side of the character arc motorway as his confidence and self-assuredness is slowly chipped away to leave his moralistic decisions torn wide open. Whereas the relationship of the boys is selling the film here, the associations between the adults is equally fascinating.
Little Men is a wonderfully thoughtful, delicate film concentrating on the daily turmoil of normal people. Sachs has created a delightful, emotional and insightful vision of everyday life with a perfectly paced minimal plot and excellent character development. Zack Snyder and co, take note.
8 / 10