Little Men is a 2016 drama about two early teen boys who become fast friends while caught in the middle as their parents come to an impasse that will forever test their relationship.
Brian (Greg Kinnear) is a struggling actor, so when his father dies, he moves his small family into the Brooklyn apartment he inherits. His wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) is a modestly successful psychotherapist and earns most of the money, while their thirteen-year-old son Jake (Theo Taplitz), a gentle, quiet aspiring artist spends much of his time immersed in his sketchbooks.
The apartment is on the top floor of a two-story building with a small dress shop in the space below, operated by Leonor Calvelli (Paulina Garcia), who also has a boy the same age as Jake. His name is Tony (Michael Barbieri), an outgoing socially active boy who dreams of being an actor, even attending one of the city’s more acclaimed theater schools. The boys quickly become close, bonding as they explore the neighborhood and interests.
The dress shop is rented space, the rent formerly paid to Brian’s father, who, because of his friendship with the woman, kept the fee substantially below market value. As Brian and Kathy face severe financial concerns, despite their growing friendship with Leonor, they are forced to triple the rent, still keeping it lower than it could, but it drives an irremovable wedge. Worse, it creates a new dynamic for the boys, and things begin to unravel as their friendship becomes victim to reality seeping in from the outside.
Directed by Ira Sachs, Little Men is an actor’s movie, a brilliantly realized and deeply impactful film that rings achingly true. It harkens back to such films as Noah Baumbach‘s The Squid and the Whale in terms of authenticity, in some ways feeling like a theater production. Grounded by two outstanding performances from Taplitz and Barbieri, it veers hard away from the conventions of the traditional coming-of-age story, keeping clear of the tropes, instead giving these characters honesty as the world-out-of-their control taints the bond they have formed on their own. Sachs carefully layers an exploration of young friendship with a look at the slow subtle gentrification of the city, painting these characters in not so obvious colors. It’s an emotionally draining experience.
That begins and ends with the boys, both of whom carry the film with their opposing yet galvanizing personalities. Taplitz is at the forefront, playing a boy who with one misstep could have fallen into an abyss of cliché yet is so naturally convincing as the delicately awkward Jake, feeling the first pangs of independence and real friendship, he elevates every scene he is in. Barbieri is also magnetic, playing a gangly but confident boy who is loaded with potential and loyalties. Even so young, he is a force that blows through the film like a hurricane. These are two talents that not only deserve keeping an eye on, they absolutely demand it.
Kinnear, as is typical from this underused actor, is good, arguably doing the best work of his career, aided greatly by Sach’s script and direction, that gives the sorrowful character aching depth. He faces a number of truths that weigh with increasing pain, and naturally, the boys are the combustable reflection of his and the other adult’s seeming stagnation, one marked by simmering words of hurt rather than violence. Brian’s bitter acceptance of what he is marks him as a man with much that will remain unresolved.
Little Men has some lapses in pace, with a few moments that extend beyond where they should, but there are few films that reach for the purposeful lows as this. It’s a decidedly melancholy story, a quietly vicious look at adults in adult situations as their children try to fend off the slings and arrows of war they don’t quite understand. However it’s a powerful, intimate film that should be seen.
Little Men (2016) Review
Movie description: Little Men is a 2016 drama about two early teen boys who become fast friends while caught in the middle as their parents come to an impasse that will forever test their relationship.
Director(s): Ira Sachs
Actor(s): Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Barbieri, Theo Taplitz