Ira Sachs’ latest film Little Men is a beautiful, gentle tale that perfectly captures a highly sensitive, transitional period in two boys’ lives as they navigate their friendships, identities and ambitions.
Ira Sachs is renowned for bringing New York City to life in his films. From two lovers weaving through Lower Manhattan in Keep The Lights On to financial constraints forcing a married couple to live on opposite ends of the city in Love is Strange, Sachs imbues the city with the essence of his characters so it reflects their dreams, desires and idiosyncrasies.
In Little Men, Sachs’ latest film, Brooklyn is front and centre as a kids’ playground. Two kids in particular: Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz), an introverted 13-year-old and a talented artist and Tony Calvelli (Michael Barbieri), a gregarious Brooklynite who wants to become an actor when he grows up. The two form a strong friendship after Jake and his family move into his recently deceased grandfather’s apartment in the neighbourhood, which is above a shop owned by Jake’s father Brian (Greg Kinnear), but is rented out to Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina Garcia).
Brooklyn suits Jake very well. In cramped Manhattan Jake’s sensitive, quiet constitution is overwhelmed, but Brooklyn gives him all the space he needs. Sachs captures not only the influence of New York City on its teenage denizens but also the nature of being a child in a big city. Jake and Tony roller-blade through the people-less streets, talk about girls in skate parks and generally live in a reverie.
The film’s cinematography and wardrobe underscore this halcyon period – the boys’ clothes are bright, primary colours that blend well into the luxurious honey yellow colours of their surroundings. Dickon Hinchliffe’s soundtrack soars as the bond between the boys deepens and rifts with their parents form.
This reverie is threatened by the conflict between their parents, with Brian increasing the rent Leonor has to pay for the shop. The adults’ inability to come to an understanding complicates Jake and Tony’s friendship and the relationships with their parents.
One of the key question that Little Men asks is, at what point do these boys become men? Is it a slow process that is shaped by individual events that have a collective effect? Confronting death in a phone call; going to an under 18s rave; getting heartbroken for the first time; getting into a fistfight. Are these the building blocks of adulthood?
Or is it all preparation for when their parents’ neuroses and conflicts percolate down to them? When their own aged building blocks come crashing down in the forms of career disappointments, financial obligations, emasculation and resentment.
Could it ever be any other way? Parents can’t hide their issues, financial and personal, from children for long. Perhaps that’s why Little Men’s adults spend so much time dispensing advice and platitudinal philosophies like “learn to let go” and “be adaptable”. The irony being that the real lessons to be gleaned lie in the fact that these adults are incapable of following their own advice. Brian holds everything in until it overwhelms him and he breaks down whilst taking the trash out. Jake’s mother, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), tells her son to be pragmatic whilst herself proving to be rather inflexible when it comes to Leonor.
Or perhaps these adults are old enough to know their platitudes are meaningless and therefore never pause to see if their kids really processed the information.
Little Men draws you in with questions about when and how kids grow up and who is responsible for their faults or successes. As Tony and Jake get to know each other, and see their parents and themselves in a new light, we come to a startling and extremely moving realisation – Little Men isn’t really about exploring how these boys becoming adults. It’s about whether they are ready for it when it happens. 4/5