From director Ira Sachs his and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias, Little Men is a delicate examination of the effect groups of parents falling out can have on the relationships of their children. It is a truly beautiful and quietly affecting film. Played with such heart and honesty there is a clarity of performance which is incredibly human.
The “little men” of the story are Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri) – two kids who become unlikely but firm friends. Tony is loud, funny, exuberant and just teetering on the right side of becoming obnoxious. He’s a kid with a thick Brooklyn accent and a self-assured attitude to match. From the Manhattan comes Jake, a reserved, quiet and artistic boy who seems happy on his own. When they are thrown together they discover they have a great deal in common. Tony wants to become an actor and Jake wants to be an artist – they both want to study at LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts.
They become friends when Jake’s grandfather dies. His struggling jobbing actor father (Greg Kinnear) and psychotherapist mother (Jennifer Ehle) move back to Brooklyn as they’ve inherited the apartment Jake’s grandfather used to live in. As well as this they’ve also inherited the dressmakers shop downstairs which is run by Leonor (Paulina García), who is also Tony’s mother. As time goes by the friendship deepens and they spend all the time they can in each other’s pockets – until a disagreement between Jake’s parents and Leonor about the rent she pays on the shop spirals into, and disrupts, their world.
Little Men is a film of great subtlety and fantastic performances. This is a small independent movie with a big star who isn’t the main character – clearly a work of love for Greg Kinnear, who incidentally has never been better. It’s also a joy to actually see Jennifer Ehle in something on the big screen, as she is always great value and doesn’t seem to get enough opportunity to appear in stuff. She is playing the breadwinner of the family, and as Ira Sachs has commented on her performance elsewhere, there is the complete sense of another world of work off screen being played out and minutely captured in every facial expression and measured pause. It is a superb performance. Paulina García is also great as Tony’s mother Leonor – the wounded pride at her entire world being gentrified around her as she clings to her old life is wonderful. No concessions are made, she is hurt, and sympathetic, but has hard edges – which as a performer is a skillful thing to pull off.
Of course the main two stars of the film though are the “little men” Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri. It seems unfair to compare the two as the characters demand very different things from each of them, but it is impossible to come away from seeing the film without thinking Michael Barbieri (in his first role) will be a name to look for in the future. It is a whirlwind, barnstorming force-of-nature performance as befitting the character. He fills the screen with ease and is utterly magnetic. Taplitz performance is quieter but no less skillful, and he also has a bright future.
Little Men is a coming-of-age movie that reminds the audience of how brightly and quickly those childhood friendships burned. Sometimes those fleeting intense friendships last the longest in the memory. What is also wonderful in the film too is that the complex lives of the parents come to bear on that childhood relationship in such a mournfully realistic way. Although seemingly simple in story, the complexities of the lives depicted bring it alive, pushing the pace of the drama and never letting the stillness become dull.
The film is out in cinemas on Friday 23rd September and is worth your attention. It’s a quietly moving that will remain with you.