Ira Sachs’ “Little Men” is a little movie brimming with little truths about modern life. It won’t change the world, but it does understand it — far more insightfully than all the formula blockbusters that will be competing for the same few screens where such a quiet and tenderly observed movie might hope to find a home. Most of those screens will likely be in New York, where the story takes place, focusing on a category of person virtually invisible in that big city — not a minority (although it has that, too), but children — privileging lives not yet dedicated to work with an importance the commerce-driven metropolis seldom comprehends, and doing so in a way that only adults can fully appreciate.
On the surface, “Little Men” is a movie about gentrification, hinging on a Brooklyn building (set up with an apartment upstairs and a small shop down below) passed from one generation to the next, where the tenant renting the street-level space gets pinched by the neighborhood’s trendy new identity. But no one goes to the movies to watch stories of gentrification (just ask “Nasty Baby” director Sebastian Silva). Though Sachs’ observations do succeed in personalizing the phenomenon, the reason we go — indeed, the reason we care — is because “Little Men” is also a story about love, and as Sachs has poignantly noted before, love is strange.
As it happens, Sachs’ previous film may as well have been a dry run for this micro-portrait, with its subplot concerning two heterosexual teens whose friendship is buffeted by the concerns of the adults around them. Here, the kid dynamic takes center stage, opening on 13-year-old Jake (Theo Taplitz), whose drawing of yellow stars against a green sky is dismissed by a burnt-out middle-school teacher. It may seem like a rather insignificant moment in the young man’s life, but just contrast the potential influence that adult comment has on his artistic future with the more overtly encouraging conversations he shares with Tony (Michael Barbieri), the son of the immigrant seamstress who’s been renting his grandfather’s store for the past several years.
Because Sachs has made this movie for grown-ups, most will probably focus on the conflict between Jake’s and Tony’s parents: After Jake’s grandfather passes away, his folks, Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), take possession of his building, inheriting a financial headache in which the downstairs dress shop was being leased for less than it cost — and perhaps one-fifth of its estimated value — to a Chilean single mother named Leonor (Paulina Garcia). Raising the rent is a delicate matter and one that Brian and his sister, Audrey (Talia Balsam), go about broaching with a passive-aggressiveness virtually unique to those of the Caucasian persuasion.
Meanwhile, making friends in that way that comes so easily to children — where the perfect intersection of geography, gender and age is often all that is necessary for two otherwise completely different individuals to forge a meaningful bond — the naturally outgoing Tony recognizes that Jake is something of an introvert, but reaches out anyway, offering to show him around the neighborhood and later inviting him over to play video games. Their bond is strong enough that once their parents start to quarrel, instead of taking sides, they stick together, giving the adults the silent treatment.
Naturally, the adults need to sort out the real-estate mess, although it’s telling that nearly every scene is seen through the children’s eyes. Even the exceptions, as when Brian rehearses for an Off Off Broadway revival of “The Seagull” (since Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” probably would have been too on-the-nose), are significant only insofar as they interest the kids — in this case, because Tony also dreams of being an actor (in real life, Barbieri has Pacino’s charisma, plus a New York Italian accent thicker than Stallone’s), and subsequently tries to convince Jake to join him in applying to the LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts.
Again, there’s that sense that Tony serves as the key champion for Jake’s artistic future. Compare a scene in which they discuss his drawings with one in which Jake, deeply wounded that some of his favorite sketches appear to have gotten thrown out during the move, is lectured by his father on how it can feel good to let things go — one moment helps set his career path in motion, while the other represents the sort of resentment Jake will likely harbor for life. These are precisely the sort of moments in which Sachs and screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias specialize, like painters whose every brushstroke represents a childhood memory that will ultimately come to define these two little men.
As the disagreement between Leonor and her landlords escalates, the boys’ friendship also advances, and there are subtle clues that it has reached the level of love: Attending a different school from Jake, Tony sticks up for his friend, sparking a cafeteria fistfight in the process, while back in English class, Jake’s mind presumably races to thoughts of Tony when assigned to write a poem about someone he loves. Their connection is purely platonic, and even leaves room for Tony to hit on a girl in his acting workshop, though the possibility exists that Jake could later turn out to be gay (another way in which their connection echoes “Love Is Strange,” which toyed with our assumptions as to its teens’ sexuality).
The fact is, what these two boys share is beautiful. As Brian admits, friendships don’t come so easily later in life, and the fact that theirs is tested by the pettiness of their parents amounts to tragedy of a kind. Instead of laying on the melodrama, Sachs keeps things subtle, telling his story almost exclusively through quiet moments, some of them so minor that our minds wander away entirely. Though “Little Men” was made on a startlingly small budget, nearly every supporting detail — from d.p. Oscar Duran’s careful framing to Dickon Hinchliffe’s life-affirming score (which hums with the anticipation of better things to come) — adds value to this little gem.