Ira Sachs is better known for his queer themed films like Keep the Lights On and the wonderful Love is Strange, starring Alfred Molina and John Lithgow. His latest film is a subtle, accessible, enjoyable and charming New York set coming of age story exploring the blossoming friendship between two thirteen year old boys from different backgrounds.
Jake (a great performance from newcomer Theo Taplitz) is a shy sensitive kid and an aspiring artist. His father Brian (Greg Kinnear) is a struggling actor who is appearing in some community theatre works. When Brian’s father dies, the family move from their upscale apartment into his old brownstone house. They live in the upstairs area, while the ground floor is occupied by Leonor (Paulina Garcia, from the Argentinean drama Gloria), a dressmaker who has been renting the premises from Brian’s father. Paulina has a teenaged son Tony (the debut for Michael Barbieri) who is the same age as Jake and is an aspiring actor. The two boys explore the neighbourhood together.
But when Brian’s sister Audrey (Talia Balsam) demands a greater share of their late father’s estate Brian is forced to either raise Leonor’s rent or evict her from the premises. This creates some tension between the two families. Brian’s wife Kath (Jennifer Ehle) tries to keep the peace to ensure that the friendship between the two boys is not affected. But when things escalate Jake and Tony take a vow of silence as a way of dealing with the tension.
Little Men has been written by Sachs and his regular collaborator Mauricio Zacharias (Love Is Strange), and the script is subtle and compassionate. It deals with universal themes like family, friendships, greed, the uncertainty of growing up, the mistakes that adults make. This is a gently paced slice of life film that looks and feels authentic.
Part of the film’s charm is down to the wonderful performances from the two young actors, both of whom are making their feature film debuts. Taplitz delivers a nicely unaffected performance, and he brings a maturity to the role. Barbieri has a rougher edge and brings a more street wise edge to his performance. Kinnear delivers one of his better performances as Brian, who has bottled up his grief, and he captures a kind of resignation and world weary quality that suits the character.
Like Love is Strange, Little Men is also something of a love letter to the gentrified Brooklyn neighbourhood where the film is set. Oscar Durant’s warm cinematography captures the streets of the neighbourhood and it forms a great backdrop to the story. This charming film was one of the standouts of the recent Melbourne International Film Festival.
Director: Ira Sachs
Cast: Jennifer Ehle, Alfred Molina, Talia Balsam, Greg Kinnear
Release Date: 1 December 2016 (limited)
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television