Review: Little Men

Ira Sachs explores the impact of gentrification in the domestic home


Ira Sachs’ Little Men starts off as a gentle story of two families living on the same block in Brooklyn. Not unlike his previous film Love Is Strange, the story of a couple in their late sixties—in which Alfred Molina stars in alongside John Lithgow—this follow up is equally set against the unforgiving real estate market of New York. The Jardine family move from Manhattan to Brooklyn, into a brownstone inherited from the deceased father of Brian (Greg Kinnear). The ground floor is rented out by Leonor Calvelli (Paulina Garcia) as a clothes shop, there for decades. The deceased father had developed a strong friendship with Leonor, and kept her rent affordable as the neighbourhood around them was gentrifying. Brian’s sister thinks the shop is old-fashioned and non-profitable, and therefore strongly suggests to evict Leonor for new tenants, who are willing and able to pay the expected amount. Brian doesn’t want it to come to that, approaching Leonor with a new deal. This does not go well.

This is an honest, imperfect film, about the fragility of individuals, relationships and issues related to social class. Sachs’ shots are delightfully unpolished, giving it a realistic dimension that is easy to watch. The actors deliver a raw, open performance that Sachs takes care to capture unrehearsed. 90 per cent of this film is scripted, the other 10 per cent is improvisation. The ‘Little Men’ in question, 13 year olds Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), develop an unlikely friendship. Both striving to be artists, Jake—Brian’s son—is something out of a Bresson movie, whereas Tony (Leonor’s son) is pure Scorsese. The bond these two boys develop comes across so naturally on screen, they seem to have forgotten a camera is there. Sachs explains this through his philosophy of avoiding rehearsals, making the kids spend time together off screen. A decent amount of their scenes are silent ones, specifically the recurring shots of them shooting around Brooklyn on rollerblades and a scooter. They do not need to speak for us to pick up on their mutual ease around each other. This goes to show how children have the ability to forge deep, meaningful relations in a short amount of time.

Greg Kinnear fits superbly into the role of the distraught father, struggling with mixed emotions about his son’s artistic aspirations, his rational sister pushing him to make a move on the eviction of Leonor, the passing away of his somewhat estranged father. His wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) brings home the one reliable source of income, supporting the family as he pursues an unsuccessful career in acting. He is ashamed of this but cannot bring himself to admit it, dealing with his grief in private. In many ways, Brian is still growing up, and has yet to become the man he wants to be, or at least the one his wife and son need him to be. The scene of him crying into the late hours of the night, alone under the staircase reaches right out to the viewer. Anguish of loss is a recurrent theme in Little Men, each character having lost or losing someone or something. Leonor, played by the very talented Paulina Garcia, is one of the best performances of 2016 so far. She is fierce, holding her ground for as long as she can. Brian and Kathy see her through their angle of the prism, shocked at her refusal to cooperate with them. In return, she despises this man, the absent son of her dear friend Max, who is the deceased father of Brian. Max cared about her, “Can you believe that?” she asks Brian during their final confrontation.

The script, co-written by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, cleverly never deals out too many good cards to one person, shifting our empathy from one character to another throughout the movie. As Jean Renoir’s Octave from The Rules of the Game says, “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.” Leonor is a refined character, who is not afraid to stand her ground, resisting their demands, simply to survive. Yet she too breaks when pushed too far, reading her eviction papers. This is not a story of aristocracy against the poor, but of the people in the middle trying to find a balance between themselves and their surroundings. The title of this film was greatly inspired by the classic novel and film adaptation Little Women for its sentimental, domestic context. Sachs uses the form of melodrama to expose some of the biggest social and economic struggles that people are facing worldwide, in every city. Gentrification is no light topic, and losing one’s home can be life or death in many cases.

Tension between the boys’ parents puts a strain on their friendship, making nonchalant things such as sleeping over at one another’s impossible. They are completely caught in the middle, and their reaction to this is to respectively give their parents “the silent treatment”, a name that was considered as a potential title for the film. The parents try to keep the children outside of the mess, but they can’t protect them forever. Tony in particular appreciates honesty, which is underlined in the kid’s party scene, when the girl he asks on a date tells him she’s “into older guys”. To this he replies “Thank you for being honest”, another initial title idea. When the truth does come out, Jake’s desperate, naive attempt at fixing things is heart wrenching. If only things were as simple and uncomplicated as his solution. No class lines, no prejudices.

During his Q&A at HOME Mcr cinema, Sachs explained how this was probably the most rehearsed scene in the film, insofar as Theo delivers an emotionally charged monologue built up in several stages: outrage, denial, proposing a solution, realising that his father isn’t going to consider this, that he is too late. He erroneously uses the word “evacuating”, softly corrected by his mother that the word to use is “evicting”. This is one of the rare reminders that in spite of their precociousness they are only 13.

Reality hits hard when Jake skates past the now empty shop, it is literally “in his face” as Sachs puts it. In the final scene, time has passed, as a slightly older Jake notices Tony at an art gallery. Watching him talk to classmates from afar, his decision to not approach him speaks volumes. He is realising their friendship just won’t work. Theo Taplitz explained to Sachs that in this scene, it dawned on him that it was the end of the shooting, the story, the film. This touched Sachs, as Theo was experiencing the notion of “past” on a deeper level for the first time. “I’m interested to see what will become of those kids” pondered Sachs. The lack of conventional closure to the story is as bittersweet as it is refreshing, as you leave the screening wondering how these characters’ lives will unfold. Little Men truly confirms that Sachs is one of the quintessential filmmakers in contemporary American cinema.

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