A family of Manhattanites inherits a home in Brooklyn after a grandfather dies. The mother is a busy psychotherapist; the husband, whose father passed away, is a working actor in a career far less successful than his wife’s. The family has an opportunity to move into the home and live more affordably. There is, however, an obstacle. When the grandfather was still alive, he took care of the Chilean immigrant mother who ran the dress shop on the first floor, letting years go by without ever raising her rent. After the family of three moves in, another obstacle presents itself: The son forms a friendship with the son of the dressmaker. And therein lies the drama of Little Men.
Director Ira Sachs and cowriter Mauricio Zacharias are the creative minds behind two of the most memorable indie films in recent years, Keep the Lights On and Love Is Strange. With Little Men, they continue their streak of stories that delve into true-to-life characters and conflicts that become more complex as the film proceeds. Heading up the cast is Greg Kinnear, as the often out-of-work dad, Brian. Paulina Garcia (Gloria) plays Leonor the dressmaker, in a role written with her in mind. The film’s narrative is divided between the parents’ rental dispute and the fast-forming bond between the two teenage boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony.
Jake is artistic and awkward and doesn’t have many friends. Especially not many boy friends, as Brian remarks to Leonor, grateful that Jake now has a friend. While many filmmakers would have addressed Jake’s sexuality head-on, Sachs and Zacharias, whose other films have dealt with gay subjects, take the high road by leaving Jake’s sexuality ambiguous. As he is still a kid, they treat him accordingly and therefore put no label on him. Today, with teenage LGBTQ issues such a hot topic in the media, filmmakers tend to establish adolescents’ sexuality firmly as this or that, which is a myopic way of portraying the mercurial nature of sexual discovery at that age.
While Jake may not have decided on how he self-identifies, his parents seem fully prepared to accept Jake for whomever he chooses to be. The audience participates in this tension alongside his parents; it’s nobody’s business until Jake figures it out for himself.
Complementing Jake’s story is Leonor’s same-aged son, Tony, played with a thick Brooklyn accent by dynamo Michael Barbieri. He projects a toughness and loudmouthed attitude. However, it’s implied that this may be a defense mechanism and how he has had to learn to carry himself, growing up without a father. Underneath it all, Tony yearns to be an actor, and he and Jake are able to connect with each other based on their shared passion to attend a performing arts high school.
The boys inevitably become involved in the parents’ conflict, protesting their dispute and coming up with their own solution that is full of heart but lacking in rationality. To watch a boy make a plea to his parents on behalf of a plan that seems so full-proof to him, but is complete nonsense to the adults, will stir up many a repressed memory in the audience.
Little Men also depicts the complexity of gentrification. Brian and his wife Kathy appear to be doing well for themselves, but the truth is Brian hasn’t been getting much acting work, while Kathy’s practice is barely keeping the family afloat. Relocating to Brooklyn eases some of their financial woes, but they cannot afford not to raise Leonor’s rent.
Leonor dodges Brian and Kathy whenever they try to discuss the raise in rent. From her perspective, she was good friends with Brian’s father, and she and Tony became his surrogate family as Brian and his family grew more distant for many years before his death. According to her, she and Brian’s father shared Old World values. They took care of each other, and he meant to look after her, even though he didn’t include her in his will.
In the end, someone wins and someone loses the fight, though the filmmakers wisely refrain from choosing a side. Instead, there are moments when we see the validity of Leonor’s and Brian’s respective arguments. Everyone tries to maintain civility through the dispute, though they end up saying things that are truly hurtful.
For those looking for an intimate film with taut performances, Little Men will score big.