Review: Little Men (Sundance)
PLOT: Two young boys have their new-found friendship threatened when their parents haggle over a lease in downtown New York.
REVIEW: LITTLE MEN is an interesting follow-up to LOVE IS STRANGE for director Ira Sachs. Like that film, LITTLE MEN is all about the human cost of skyrocketing real estate in New York. While his previous film showed what happened as a long-term gay couple found themselves unable to afford rent in their New York apartment, LITTLE MEN shows the effect a financial squabble over real estate among adults can have on their children - neither of whom can appreciate things like leases and property values.
LITTLE MEN concerns a lonely uptown boy named Jake (Theo Taplitz) whose effeminate nature has led to him be ostracized by his classmates. When his father (Greg Kinnear) inherits a building, young Jake finds an unlikely friend in the macho Tony (Michael Barbieri) whose mother (Paulina Garcia) runs a dress shop in the building. Once Jake’s parents realize she’s only paying a fraction of the land value and that her lease is up, they decide to renegotiate, essentially putting her out of business. The two families wage war and despite the best intentions of all involved to mediate, including Jake’s psychotherapist mother (Jennifer Ehle) an insurmountable wedge threatens to rip the boys apart.
Like LOVE IS STANGE, Sachs has made a compelling film. In a more simplistic version, Jake’s parents would have been drawn as villains, but here both are rather earnest. Neither wants to put Tony’s mother in financial distress, but as they have their own financial woes the income from the space is much-needed. For her part, Tony’s mom is no simple victim, with her presuming that she has a right to a ridiculously low lease despite new owners. When it seems clear that her lease won’t be renewed, she tries to intimidate Jake’s dad, mocking his profession (he’s a not-too-successful actor) and belittling his manhood for being such a poor provider for his son. Here, in their own way both sets of parents are equally right and wrong.
Despite good performances all-around by the adults, this is not their film. It really belongs to young Taplitz and Barbieri, who make an unlikely but lovable pair. While Taplitz is sensitive (and probably gay) and Barbieri is macho and straight, their relationship feels authentic and touching, with neither wanting to get involved in their parents squabbles in any way lest it threaten their friendship or their shared dream of attending the LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts.
Barbieri is an especially intriguing screen presence, with his interesting Brooklyneese vocal patois that seems authentic. Both boys seem real, with their roles lacking any sense of cliché. In someone else’s hands, this could have become a mainstream have’s vs have not’s morality tale, but Sachs keeps it raw and real, with even the boys getting their moments of moral complexity, which are subtly played by the young actors.
At eighty-five minutes, LITTLE MEN is a quick watch, and the fast pace lends it an almost fable-like quality. This would be an ideal pick-up for one of the streaming services, in that it’s thought-provoking but also easygoing and accessible, particularly for kids. It’s further proof that Sachs is among the most sensitive of the new crop of directors to emerge from Sundance over the last few years, and a very worthwhile effort.