Gentle, poignant, and engrossing, Little Men is a tiny drama of big themes and well-drawn characters; a detailed, delicate portrait of two families in conflict; and a compelling generational jump for its filmmaker from retirement into childhood. Humane in its truthfulness and beautiful in its humanity, it’s a canvas on which the most relatable of all experiences plays out: life.
Premiering at Sundance and heading to Berlin, Little Men is about Brian and Kathy Jardine (Greg Kinnear, Little Miss Sunshine and Jennifer Ehle, Zero Dark Thirty) and their 13-year-old son Jake, who move into an apartment in Brooklyn which they inherit after Brian’s elderly father dies. When Leonor (Paulina García, Gloria), a tenant on the ground level who runs a dress shop, encounters a dispute with Brian over the small amount of rent charged, it has implications for the emerging connection between Jake and Leonor’s son, Tony.
After several minor works that showed significant promise, writer-director Ira Sachs broke out in 2012 with the vulnerable romance Keep the Lights On, and then topped himself with 2014’s landmark Love is Strange, which boasted exceptional performances from Alfred Molina, John Lithgow, and Marisa Tomei. To say Little Men doesn’t feel as groundbreaking does the film a disservice. It is as strong an artistic work as anything Sachs has done; it simply covers unique territory for the talented Jewish filmmaker.
Where Love is Strange presented heartwarming embraces and signs of affections between two people in a long-term relationship, Little Men – as its title indicates – presents the intimate interactions of a friendship in its early stages. And while Love is Strange showcased master performers in rare form, Little Men provides a vehicle for two young actors to give breakthrough performances. As the boys, both Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri show an uncanny awareness of how to carry themselves in front of a camera. There’s a nearly astonishing sequence that turns an acting tête-à-tête into a formal triumph.
Sachs’ previous feature was remarkably effective in achieving multiple goals: in making an LGBTQ-themed love story universal; in providing an optimistic take on that most difficult of relational challenges (surviving the passage of time); and in avoiding cliché while pursuing the previous two objectives. Little Men is a less ambitious endeavour that still makes use of his strengths.
At 85 minutes, Little Men may feel slight, but it’s filled with Sachs’ trademark wisdom and generosity, brimming with astute observations about the human condition (“One of the hardest things to realize when you’re a child is that your parents are people, too, you understand that? They care about things, they make mistakes, they try to do what they think is the right thing to do”). It beckons to the calm, heartrending work of François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, and other members of the French New Wave.
With a handful of films under his belt, Sachs is proving to be an auteur not just of great promise, but of great result; an auteur not just lunging for greatness, but quietly coaxing greatness from small moments; an auteur not just leaning on or exhibiting the talents of established veterans, but developing the performing talents of the future. As a chronicler of modern New York (akin to Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach), he is worthwhile; as a renderer of modern people, he is priceless.