In a recent talkback about his latest film, Little Men, director Ira Sachs made two points that form a perfect lens through which to discuss the film:
1) The movie belongs to its two young leads, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri);
2) It was built around the silent treatment (more on that later).
The two points are naturally inextricable, as it’s Taplitz’s and Barbieri’s remarkable performances that carry the latter point off.
The two boys (or little men, if you will) are brought together by the death of Jake’s grandfather, as his family moves into the now-vacant apartment above the shop that he’d been renting out to Tony’s mother (Paulina Garcia). The kids bond quickly despite the tensions that exist between the grown-ups from the very start. The rent that Tony’s mother has been paying hasn’t changed since she first opened the shop years ago, but Jake’s family needs the money that would come from adjusting the rent to something more on par with the current real estate value in the neighborhood.
The silent treatment kicks in as the kids attempt to send a message to their parents about the conflict. It’s an obvious but effective way of illustrating that sometimes uncrossable gap between the anxieties of childhood and adulthood, and also serves as a stark contrast to the bright energy that exists between Theo and Jake. To wit, there’s a literal dichotomy of light and dark throughout the film. The adults are almost always framed by shadows or darkness. The children are bathed in light. That is, until the drama unfolding between the adults catches up with them.
Little Men is a love story in its most tragic form, i.e. it’s a love story in which the obstacles are caused not by the characters themselves, but simply by their circumstances. It also exists beyond the categorizations of platonic or romantic love; the distinction doesn’t matter. Maybe the shades of the boys’ loves differ, but they’re pure emotions, without the extra definition and discussion that seem to be necessitated by age.
The movie truly belongs to its two young leads (Barbieri in particular, who knocks it out of the park in a sequence in which the kids participate in an acting exercise). Greg Kinnear and Paulina Garcia are both wonderful as two sides of the struggle with gentrification, but the movie is less interested in making a point about those particular politics as it is in telling Jake and Tony’s story of collateral damage. Considering how much of an issue gentrification has become, especially in Brooklyn, where the movie is set, the film’s lack of focus on the subject may come as a disappointment, but the poignancy of the story between the two boys is framed with such care that it is hard not to concede to it. The film is quiet but vibrant, and Ira Sachs does a lovely job coaxing images to life out of stillness, and tenderness out of situations that might seem barren of it.