Ira Sachs’s beautifully composed and meaningful latest completes a loose trilogy that focuses on pairs of characters in New York who are moved by thought-provoking and heartbreaking dilemmas. The intimately romantic Keep The Lights On tackled drug addiction during the height of the AIDS pandemic, while last year’s wonderful Love Is Strange centred on a couple in a same-sex marriage who were forced to live apart. Now with Little Men Sachs turns his gaze to the subject of gentrification through the veil of a tender coming-of-age drama in another quietly sublime, character-driven mood piece.
The little men in question are Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), two early teens in Brooklyn from opposite sides of track. Jacob is the introverted, effeminate and artistic son of a failing theatre actor and a psychotherapist; Tony – the son of a Chilean dressmaker and an absent father working overseas – is full of New York working-class bravado, and aims to follow in the footsteps of his idol Al Pacino by earning a scholarship to famed arts school LaGuardia. The two unlikely pals meet before Jake’s grandpa’s wake, and are bonded together by customary adolescent interests. Sachs wonderfully observes their friendship, which flourishes as the duo skate around the neighbourhood, squabble over video games and innocently discuss their dreams for the future.
The tender narrative is punctuated by a clear and simple dilemma – reminiscent of the work of Vittoria De Sica or Yasujiro Ozu – that is intensified by the complexities of family life. Jake and his parents are forced to move into his late grandfather’s former apartment as father Brian (Greg Kinnear) struggles to make ends meet as an actor. The family also inherit the boutique that Tony’s mother Leonor (Paulina García) operates. García gives a reserved but exceptional performance as the quietly troubled Leonor, who was sanctioned by Brian’s grandfather as the custodian of the traditional store in order to keep the neighbourhood’s gentrification at bay. Brian is left with a moral quandary: to increase the rent, which Leonor would not be able to afford, or to cash in on its commercial value as an influx of faux-bohemian enterprises invades the area.
As the grown-ups feud, it’s the boys who pass the most insightful judgements on the situation. Newcomers Taplitz and Barbieri give staggeringly rich and intelligent performances as Jake and Tony. Barbieri, who delivers his lines with the chutzpah of a young Brando, particularly exudes charisma. This is a story of friendship and simple humanism which thoughtfully considers the tribulations of adapting to the ever-evolving constraints of the commercial world. Sachs has proven himself to be a master of nuance, with another film brimful of dialogue that’s laced with subtle but significant meaning.