Sensitive performances and a touching teenage friendship make this understated arthouse drama a treat for those who appreciate ‘small canvas’ cinema. At times, though, Little Men suffers from staginess and a lack of excitement, with an ending that leaves more questions than answers.
Perhaps director-writer Ira Sachs is imitating Anton Chekhov, whose play The Seagull is rehearsed and performed by actor Brian (Greg Kinnear, the dad in Little Miss Sunshine) in Little Men. The Russian dramatist magnified the mundane details of people’s lives in order to highlight life-changing events, and he used ‘zero-endings’ or anti-climactic conclusions.
The life-changing event here is the death of Brian’s father, which prompts a family move from Manhattan to his Brooklyn two-storey apartment for Brian, his wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle, Elizabeth Bennett in BBC’s Pride and Prejudice) and their 13 year old son Jake. Downstairs is a clothes shop rented by Italian-American Leonor (Paulina Garcia), whose son Tony is the same age as Jake.
A friendship quickly develops between the two boys, in many ways opposites, who bond over video games and skating/scooting round the local park. Newcomers Theo Tablitz and Michael Barbieri are a delight as the sensitive, artistic Jake and the more extrovert aspiring actor Tony. Barbieri, in particular, has a charismatic screen presence that threatens to burst out of this sedate film. In one of the stand-out scenes he repeats lines back to his drama teacher until they are shouting at each other: ‘get out of my face!’ Suddenly we are reminded of J.K. Simmons’s bandleader in Whiplash.
There are hints that Jake might be gay but this is never made explicit. Dialogue between the two teenagers is not as naturalistic as their performances, with clunky lines like ‘you look like an artist’, ‘you’re a great friend’ and ‘this area is really bohemian’. Would a 13 year old really say ‘thank you for being honest’ when he is rejected by the girl he fancies at a disco? The best scenes between them are the silent ones – skating in the park; deep in conversation on the subway train — for which the wistful score adds romance and pathos.
In any case, Jake and Tony’s friendship is diluted by the film’s occupation with more mundane adult matters: the lack of money. It is the drama of Leonor’s rent which threatens to scupper the boys’ friendship. She had previously had a special relationship with Brian’s father, who treated her more like family and charged her a tiny amount of rent for her shop. Now, hard-up for cash himself, Brian tries to make her understand the need to triple her rent.
Sachs is probably making a point about gentrification and the ousting of immigrants from now-fashionable areas of New York, but he is careful not to take sides. The adults’ acting is good enough to make us sympathise with both put-upon Brian and grudge-bearing Leonor. Perhaps the falling out is more to do with a plate – the one that Kathy failed to return to Leonor after she had bought a cake round at Brian’s father’s funeral.
Little Men’s most wide-screen image is when Jake skates off on his own with Brooklyn Bridge looming in the distance. It evokes a scene from Once Upon a Time in America, a very different rites-of-passage movie set in another era, but one which also dealt with the (more violent) displacement of ethnic groups in New York.