So immersive is a good friendship that its depths and contours aren’t obvious until its dissolution. Adolescent boys are less likely to plumb its depths. In Little Men, Jake and Tony’s friendship is borne of conflict: after Jake’s dad Brian (Greg Kinnear) inherits a Brooklyn apartment, he struggles with the guilt of having to evict Tony’s mom Leonor Calvelli (Paulina Garcia), owner of a ground floor dress shop. As the tension between the families intensifies, so does their bond.
Little Men was co-written and directed by Ira Sachs, who in films like Keep the Lights On and Love is Strange demonstrated how tight living spaces impinge on human relations. Just as impressive is the confidence with which he limns the limits of male relationships. The Mutt and Jeff chemistry of Jake and Tony has its own rules: the former, a reticent painter; the latter an aspiring actor whose thick Nu Yawkese suggests he should study Ratzo Rizzo’s speech patterns. Like children in Henry James fiction, their shared dream (i.e. attending Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School together) elbows out the coarseness of adult squabbling. With his thick unruly hair and lank arms that are as likely to get thrown across Jake’s shoulders as they are to cushion his head, Michael Barbieri is a terrific Tony, a kid who talks tough but hides neither his ambition nor sweetness. No less watchable is Theo Taplitz as Jake, the furtive glances at his buddy suggesting he may not be aware of the friendship’s full implications.
Never far from Sachs’ mind and camera is the nexus of class and race. Chileans who’ve gotten by because Brian’s father never charged them full rent, the Calvellis watch Brooklyn change into an extension of Manhattan; like the real New Yorkers populating In Jackson Heights, the extraordinary Frederick Wiseman documentary released a year ago, they’ve played by the rules but watch the rich discard the rules. “With the neighborhood changing…it’s a very old-fashioned store,” Brian’s sister explains to her sister in law, as if it’s a defense. Brian is an actor, on the evidence of a brief eavesdropping into a rehearsal for The Seagull a fair one (like Kinnear himself. He’s not that successful or anything,” Jake informs Tony). His wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) supports him. She’s in conflict resolution, a plot wrinkle too on-the-nose for a film this observant. Mondays she’s off. “I need a day to get myself organized.” “That’s right. Your day off,” Leonor will say later with quiet irony. Leonora can never take Mondays off. But they all live in New York City in 2015, where the tectonics of income are in a continuous tumult. To support themselves the Jardines must triple Leonor’s rent, thus guaranteeing that she will never take Mondays off. That’s Brooklyn in 2016. Every day another family disappears off the New York grid, who knows where; if it’s not the Calvellis it’ll be the Jardines’ turn. When all are guilty none are, Hannah Arendt wrote.
At a compact eighty minutes, Little Men has no time to dawdle. Sachs trusts the audience to get his point, such as the observation that to relax the Jardines drink wine and Leonor smokes continuously — indoors! (It’s another class distinction). Although Mr. Calvelli disappeared a cigarette expedition for Leonor, we see Sachs favorite Alfred Molina, whose proximity to Leonor is never explained other than providing occasional legal counsel. Does it matter? At all times his camera minds its manners. Brian, who is far from a bad man, gets a private moment early in the film where he quietly breaks down, awash with emotion inspired by a dead man who as Leonor avers may not have liked him much; the camera observes Kinnear with discretion from behind an eave. Discretion and mindfulness in a filmmaker are not virtues to sneeze at. Sachs doesn’t make “exciting” films, but their fairness, geographical precision, and attention to gesture are hallmarks of Hirokazu Koreeda and Jia Zhangke; not for him the received gestures learned in the Sundance lab. Points, however, deducted for the icky score, set to images of the boys skateboarding around Brooklyn as if to say, Ah, golden youth. This is the only recent movie in which a boy’s response to a girl who rejected him is, “Thank you for being honest.” He’s probably relieved. Many of us were — even those of us who turned out straight. The rest of us are relieved that Little Men is one of the year’s best.
Little Men is playing at Cosford Cinema.