Movie Review – Little Men
Whatever director and co-writer Ira Sachs was trying to accomplish in his previous film Love is Strange, he accomplishes better here. Whatever Richard Linklater was trying to accomplish in Boyhood, in various aspects, Sachs accomplishes better here. This movie is very much Love is Strange meets Boyhood, but more powerful and efficient, not gimmicky, more nuanced and focused. Like Love is Strange, this movie is narratively about real estate and living spaces of people, shared or otherwise. Like Boyhood, this movie is about a prepubescent child’s experiences and outlook, as he’s pitted opposite adult dilemmas. It’s by far one of the best coming-of-age stories of the year and possibly decade. The film’s aesthetic remains as Sachs’ previous directorial efforts, that of a realistic New York City.
How this movie is better than Boyhood mainly is in the performances of its young cast. The main child actor, Theo Taplitz, is extraordinarily better than the main child in that Linklater film, and even he is perhaps overshadowed by his teenage co-star, Michael Barbieri. Barbieri is like Al Pacino or Robert De Niro, or maybe even Marlon Brando but in child form. It might be hyperbole, but Barbieri is so outstanding. He literally steals every scene that he’s in. This film is a must-see if for him alone.
A lot of critics have made a lot of bones about a scene in Hail, Caesar where the young actor there has an actor-training moment, resulting in him having to repeat a line over and over. It doesn’t compare at all to a similar scene in this movie where Barbieri’s character has to repeat lines thrown at him by his acting teacher. It had the opposite effect as Hail, Caesar in that it’s meant to show how gifted this young person is at acting. It’s funny and quite frankly a knockout.
In addition to these great young performers, Sachs crafts what is a quietly intense story, one rich with great drama, built from good conflict. One might think the conflict is simply an issue of gentrification, but it’s not that simple. There is so much complication and nuance here. The shadings and layers but also the core and execution are so strong and fundamental that it instantly makes this film one for the ages, any age, past, present or future.
Greg Kinnear (As Good As It Gets and Little Miss Sunshine) stars as Brian Jardine, a middle-aged, struggling actor whose father dies and he inherits his father’s Brooklyn apartment, as well as the landlord status of a small business being operated out of the connected shop space. Jennifer Ehle (The Ides of March and Zero Dark Thirty) co-stars as Kathy Jardine, the wife of Brian who has a good job and is a very sensible woman, but both of them decide it’s best to move into Brian’s father’s apartment, due to financial concerns.
Paulina García (Gloria and The 33) also stars as Leonor Calvelli, the woman who runs the aforementioned, small business. It’s a clothing shop, a boutique shop where she stitches outfits herself or sells outfits from Hispanic or minority women. She drops not-so-subtle hints that she had a deeper relationship with Brian’s father, a deeper one than Brian ever had. There’s an implied, sexual connection, but obviously a deeper, emotional one, and she seems to delight in rubbing Brian’s face in it.
The reason she rubs it in his face is because she’s upset. Those financial concerns, whatever they are, compel Brian and Kathy to raise the rent that Leonor has to pay to keep her shop. Leonor is obstinate about not paying a penny more. I don’t deny that she’s incapable of the increased rent, but because Sachs never gets into the specifics of what the rent was or would be, there is a question if Leonor is being stubborn, just to be stubborn. There’s also no accounting for what kind of discount Brian’s father was already giving her.
The wrinkle is that while Brian and Leonor have a kind of tug-of-war over this rent issue, Brian’s son, Jake, played by Taplitz, and Leonor’s son, Tony, played by Barbieri, immediately begin to bond. Jake and Tony create a great friendship. They play video games or outside. They hang out and talk. Tony even defends Jake when he gets bullied in homophobic attacks. It’s never stated, but the film slightly implies that Jake is gay, which more than likely he is.
However, tensions between Jake and Tony arise when tensions between their parents arise. This forces them to act out in minor ways. They’re still kids, but this situation is obviously pushing them to grow up in certain regards. A lot of complex emotions come into play as a result and these teen boys have to face them, and Sachs doesn’t let the audience off the hook so easily. His camera holds on emotional moments, allowing us to feel them. He also has a knack with slow fade-outs that are like deep breaths that let these emotions really sink in.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for thematic elements, smoking and some language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 25 mins.
Now playing at Cinema Art Theater in Lewes, DE.