Little Men

When I interviewed Pedro Almodóvar a while ago about his latest feature Julieta, he told me why he liked the writing of Alice Munro, whose short stories the film is based on. It was because somehow he found himself knowing less about the characters at the end than he did at the beginning. Whatever you might call this strange quality—mystery? obliqueness? discretion?—there’s much of it to be found in Little Men, the new film by writer-director Ira Sachs.

Little Men is a subtle, low-key, somewhat delicate film—and I mean “delicate” also in the sense that it’s a classically precarious box-office prospect. That is, Sachs offers us a stylistically low-key drama about the ordinary intimacies of life, without a “big issue” thematic hanger of the sort that gives a film such as, say, Still Alice a more overt claim on our attention. This is one of those movies in which the narrative strokes are so finely drawn that it isn’t easy, even while you’re watching, to say exactly what the film is about—friendship, gentrification, territorial dispute, disillusionment, coming of age, all of the above… That’s another reason why Munro comes to mind: you feel that, in the course of Little Men, you simply pass through a complex moment in the lives of a number of people, then pass out of it again, finally wondering whether you know them any better than you did at first (and on reflection, you realise that yes, of course you do). It’s the sort of film that is more substantial than a short story, less obviously all-engrossing than a novel. It is, if you like, “novella cinema,” and it’s a form or a style that Sachs—Love Is Strange, Forty Shades of Blue—is remarkably adept at.

The little men are two boys at the start of their teens. Jacob (Theo Taplitz) is the son of a middle-class Manhattan couple, the Jardines—psychotherapist Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) and Brian (Greg Kinnear), an actor whose career isn’t exactly on the skids but isn’t making him either famous or rich. Jacob is a polite, reticent boy, clearly brought up to be stiffly genteel (“Jardine residence, good evening,” he answers the phone), but with an individualistic talent for art; presented with his picture of a green sky with yellow stars, his art teacher cautions, “Van Gogh ended up cutting off his own ear.”

Little Men

When Brian’s father Max dies, the couple decide that it makes financial sense to downsize, and move into the old man’s apartment in Brooklyn. Based downstairs, where she has a shop, is a dressmaker—Chilean immigrant and single mother Leonor (Paulina García), who lives with her son Antonio or Tony (Michael Barbieri). Tony—Jacob’s age, but far more confident—instantly takes to Jacob and his drawings based on Rick Riordan’s mythology-themed Percy Jackson books (a nice change from Harry Potter). Tony, already brashly heterosexual, especially likes Jacob’s drawing of a female character (“I got a thing for redheads, don’t you?”), and the two become best friends.

Much of the film is simply about the effect the two have on each as they start spending time together. Tony’s looser domestic regime proves to be liberating for Jacob, whose parents have tight rules about computer games, while having the other boy as a confidant allows Tony to open up about his aspirations, both professional (he wants to be an actor) and romantic (he’s crazy for one of the girls in his acting class). Much of the film dwells fruitfully on the interplay between these impressive young newcomers, with their very differently relaxed screen presences. Taplitz brings Jacob a very specific kind of cautious stiffness, the insecurity of a 13-year-old boy in an unfamiliar world, with an angular face that is watchful and somehow, touchingly, not yet fully formed. As for Barbieri, he rather more obviously fits the streetwise Brooklyn archetype, with his bullish drawl and broad gestures, but one reason his manner works so well is because we realize how much Tony is acting a role: he wants to attend LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts not least because Al Pacino went there.

For a good stretch, we get to spend time with the boys, separately and apart. There’s a nice scene, allowed to take on its own ferocious momentum, where Tony does an exercise with his acting teacher (Mauricio Bustamante)—basically a shouting match, but just the sort of thing that will free up a 13-year-old boy to let rip. And there’s a scene following a night out that the boys spend at a club night for kids, when the pair return home on the subway and chat away enthusiastically. We can’t hear a word they say, but you can see by looking at them just how much Sachs has succeeded in making his actors bond.

Little Men

It’s about 40 minutes in that a narrative crisis emerges, although at first it barely seems of an earth-shattering kind. Brian and his lawyer sister Audrey (Talia Balsam) feel that the nominal rent that Max let Leonor enjoy is no longer realistic, and needs to be raised. The boys are caught in the crossfire, and eventually respond to the crisis by refusing to talk to their parents. But once the crisis develops, the meat of the film—scripted by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias—is in its mapping of the uncomfortable negotiations and assumptions between the two households. From the start, the Manhattanites have treated Leonor with courteous but dismissive condescension, as irreducibly Other; what they haven’t been able to imagine is how much she counted for the late Max (there’s at least the suggestion that they may have been lovers). That she was far closer to the old man than they ever were is something that she eventually comes out and says straight.

Little Men is very much a drama about territory. Shots of Manhattan at a distance remind us that the Jardines have left their home ground but brought their uptown sense of privilege with them. The territory at stake is Leonor’s shop, and there are superbly shaded touches of passive aggression in the way that Brian and Kathy smilingly, cautiously open the door and slip in (by contrast, Brian later walks in with undisguised proprietorial brashness). There’s a comic moment—excruciating, but in a lovely minor key—where Kathy comes in, speaks some pious cant about being trained in conflict resolution, then leans on Leonor’s work surface in a mock-submissive position that fools no one.

At the center of the film—in a way that you don’t quite see coming, because she seems at first to be a subsidiary character—is Leonor. The drama increasingly comes to be about the way that her life is torn apart by callous, if ostensibly friendly invaders. Chilean actress Paulina García, so brilliant as the lead in Sebastían Lelio’s Gloria, is this film’s big surprise, and makes Leonor exactly the sort of character that we feel we know less about than at the end. Leonor’s friendliness gradually erodes the more she comes under threat, and she reveals her own deliciously aggressive side, coolly giving Brian some home truths about his failings as a son; in a wonderfully tart moment, Leonor, learning that Brian is currently acting in Chekhov’s The Seagull, comments, “Oh. That must be very popular.” García’s careworn languor and her unusual delivery—a measured inflection that gives her words calm, detached weight—are among the great pleasures of the film. In the testy interplay with Kinnear, García makes it clear that Leonor is in her own way elegantly an actor too, and certainly far better than Brian.

Little Men

Little Men doesn’t entirely eschew obviousness. The film does invoke certain familiar ideas, notably the pairing of the stiff bourgeois boy and the mouthy street-smart Brooklynite. And there’s some overemphasis on the unwitting harshness of the Jardines, not least towards their own son: I couldn’t quite buy the brusqueness of Brian’s comments when some of Jacob’s drawings go missing in the move. And a scene of Brian and Kathy on their sofa with big wine glasses and a backwash of discreet jazz piano feels too neat a piece of social pigeonholing.

Yet throughout, any such overstatement is counterweighted by the finesse of the execution, particularly in the acting; you really become aware of Sachs as a director who works with actors to calibrate small, seemingly throwaway and tics of body language for the truths they can reveal. When Brian interrogates an unresponsive Jacob about some routine matters, he nods and shakes his head in the way adults do sometimes when they’re talking to very small children, as if he simply hasn’t realised that his son has grown up.

Little Men doesn’t tell a neatly packaged story: a single cut towards the end shows us that something critical has happened, and that a moment has passed. In an obvious way, the film is about friendship and those certain intense spells in childhood that never quite last; the final scenes, unglossed by any unnecessary narrative commentary, make a poignantly eloquent coda. Superbly acted, this is a quietly perceptive film that focuses on a transient moment at which lives come together, change, and move apart. There’s a certain no-big-deal quality to Little Men and to Sachs’s intentions which is immensely appealing. And at this point in the commercial fortunes of mainstream cinema, it’s worth being reminded that—given the current pressures to be demonstrative, sometimes wildly overdemonstrative—taking the no-big-deal approach can be quite a significant deal in itself.

Jonathan Romney is a contributing editor to FILM COMMENT and writes its Film of the Week column. He is a member of the London Film Critics Circle.