Director: Ira Sachs
Staring: Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Theo Taplitz, Pauline Garcia
The dilemma at the heart of Ira Sachs’s film Little Men rests on leasing, tenancy, and the stuff of contractual agreements. In this sense, enthralling or even mildly capturing an audience seems quite the task. Yet under Sachs’s direction, beneath these systematic details are family obligations and personal affinities, stretching far beyond a finely printed legal document. His film is the film of incorporating almost daily extraneous restrictions – its bleak formality – with burgeoning human ambitions and desires.
Like many a family tale, Little Men begins with a death. It is the death of Brian’s father. The father leaves his son Brian (Greg Kinnear), his wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) and son Jake (Theo Taplitz) the Brooklyn apartment he resided in for decades. Below their new residence is a quaint boutique dress shop run by the reserved Leonor (Paulina Garcia), who was a loyal friend and confidant to Brian’s father in the relative absence of his two children. The shop was owned and leased to her by the father for many years, with a stable and cheap fare. His death ushers in the tension of drawing up a new lease Leonor cannot afford, but which Brian must stipulate in order to justify living in the area, and satisfy his haranguing sister.
Brian is a struggling actor, working on a provincial play with fraying resilience. The actor’s dream has proved to be an intractable one, forcing him to adapt. Kathy, a psychologist, keeps the family afloat, and is eager to applaud Brian’s adaptability in light of botched plans and failed dreams. Their son Jake is a lonely, artistic boy who draws while others run and play. He’s a boy who lacks the innocent boldness characteristic of 13 year olds, and finds his self-aware maturity a stumbling block when it comes to making friends. Yet Jake finds a friend in Leonor’s son Tony (Michael Barbieri); an impulsive, matter-of-fact boy who wants to become a great American actor. His cool, relaxed urge to sit and play video games brushes off on Jake, who finally learns what it means to have a friend. His quiet intensity subsides and he becomes a complicit, adventurous companion. Although, by no means is the film lost on tracing the contours of their friendship.
The strength of Little Men is its portrayal of parents and children – how they perpetually interact, effect, and aggravate one another. The focus is not lost on the symbiosis or tension between the two boys – their flighty adolescent feelings and dreams – but is grounded in the banal decision-making concerns of adults. There is regular mention of lease agreements, contracts, the rising cost of living in Brooklyn; the stuff of babbling grown-ups sitting around a barbeque in the afternoon sun. These details, and the feelings harboured around them, act as agitators in the boys’ friendship. After all, Brian is refusing Leonor’s plea to remain at her location under the long-standing agreement struck with his father, ultimately forcing her out of her livelihood. This is not the story of two impassioned, artistic boys in search of love or doughty goals; but one tied to home, parents, the dinner table, and all that lies within the preserve of the supervised. The state of their friendship is dependent on the outcome of their parents’ dispute.
Sachs’s talent appears to be this finely attuned rendering of the details of everyday living, pressed against human desires and projections. His previous film, Love is Strange, is equally attentive to the living arrangements of a recently married gay couple. What might appear to be tedious or banal inconveniences, are in fact deeply affective. These characters operate in the world of us; dealing with insurance, contracts, family allegiances, council regulations, and where to live when home no longer exists. Sachs’s films have a quality of everydayness, despite not being presented in that precise chronology. His film is not elevated above these seemingly artless legalities, but squarely concerned with them.
In the case of Little Men, an awkward lease-related exchange between Brian and Leonor means a regrettable talk with Jake. The parents have to explain why his friend won’t be around so often, and why his friend’s mother is out of work. In a powerful scene after Jakes learns of Leonor’s eviction, he ambles into the living room and makes an emotional plea to his parents. He is confused by their decision, and even suggests moving back to their old place so that they can rent out the apartment above the shop. Meanwhile Leonor sits across from them, looking deflated and weary. Tony stands to the side, watching his friends make a case that cannot be won. Sachs is toying with a conventional dilemma which has effects beyond the world of adult negotiation and compromise. Their decisions have a reach none anticipated, meaning their children pay a hefty price.
Words by Ryan Suckling