Film review: Little Men

David Gritten / 23 September 2016

Saga film critic David Gritten raves about Little Men, a small jewel of a drama about a teenage friendship threatened by their warring parents.

Sometimes you happen upon a film that does not announce itself with the sound of trumpets, or the bells and whistles (and special effects) of a big budget. Ira Sachs’s Little Men is such a movie: a thoughtful character study of well-meaning people in New York City, with two teenage boys striving to remain best friends while their parents have a serious falling-out.

That may feel like a small story, but there are universes of feeling and dramatic tension between these characters. Yet it’s not just about them – it’s about the way changes to communities and neighbourhoods can affect the people who live in them. In this case, gentrification is the story’s underlying issue: the film is set in Brooklyn, for years a rather anonymous blue-collar district of New York, but one that has become deeply fashionable (and expensive) in recent years.  

The two boys, shy, sensitive aspiring artist Jake and outgoing, tough-talking Tony with his dreams of becoming an actor, are played by two terrific first-timers, Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri. Jake’s parents are Brian (Greg Kinnear) a struggling off-Broadway actor and Kathy, a psychotherapist.

The three of them move into an apartment once owned by Brian’s late father. The old man also owned a building in which Tony’s mother Leonor (the great Chilean actress Paulina Garcia) runs a tiny clothing shop. (It’s hinted that she and Brian’s father may have been lovers.) When Brian and Kathy try to increase Leonor’s rent, which would force her to move out, it causes ructions between the three parents that affect the boys’ friendship.

All this is brilliantly and delicately observed. No-one is exactly the bad guy here, though these adults pay insufficient attention to the happiness the two teens find in each other’s company. Whereas the scenes involving the parents are tense and fractious, passages that show Jake and Tony hanging out together have a sense of giddy joy.

Writer-director Ira Sachs has been an impressive presence for years, ever since his film Forty Shades of Blue won the major prize at the Sundance film Festival in 2005. He’s a keen, analytical observer of human behaviour, and his gifts were evident in Love is Strange (2014) about two gay men in New York forced to live separately after losing their home – like Little Men, it was a story of economics and market forces affecting people’s lives.

In the end, what makes Little Men such a terrific film is Sachs’s gift for storytelling; every character here is rooted and believable, with an understandable point of view. No-one is held up as a paragon of virtue or assigned blame as an evil presence. It’s a rare film that chooses to let its audiences experience it without nudging it to make judgements.    

It may be small in scale, but this is a work of rare sophistication and delicacy; without question it’s aimed squarely at grown-ups. Without question, it’s one of my favourite films of the year. 

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