Do not confuse the title with Louisa May Alcott. This Little Men is not a sequel to Little Women, but a small, independent slice of New York life from the admirable and keenly insightful vision of writer-director Ira Sachs, who made Love is Strange, about the heartbreaking plight of two elderly gay men who suddenly find themselves homeless, and the cruel, prejudicial red tape they must battle in a big-city bureaucracy to find a place to share their lives before death. Sachs specializes in stories about people in crisis. Little Men is about a pair of sensitive 13-year-old boys fighting to preserve a friendship that is torn apart by a bad family business deal that challenges their definition of loyalty, friendship and love. It doesn’t eventually add up to much, but the acting is deeply sincere, and I was touched in unexpected places.
LITTLE MEN ★★★
Written by: Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias
Jake Jardine and Tony Calvelli (thrilling newcomers Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri) are both square pegs trying to fit into round holes. When Jake’s paternal grandfather dies, leaving his son Brian (Greg Kinnear) and daughter Audrey (Talia Balsam) an apartment in Brooklyn above a small dress shop owned by Tony’s mother, a Chilean single mother whose son Tony is Jake’s age. Brian, a struggling actor who has never upgraded from nonprofit Chekhov to Broadway fame, and his wife Kathy (the wonderful Jennifer Ehle), a psycho-therapist whose earnings have been paying the bills for years, move from Manhattan to Brooklyn to save money, pulling their reluctant teenage son Jake out of a school he loves and plopping him down in a neighborhood that frightens and confuses him. Jake is a sensitive artist with no peers and Tony, who wants to be an actor and hopes his mother’s new landlord might give him pointers on an acting career, becomes the first boy his age who understands Jake unconditionally.
Instead of bonding with their tenants, Jake’s parents and Aunt Audrey are hell-bent on hiking up the rent, demanding an expensive lease Tony’s mother cannot pay. Ignoring the prospect of a lease she will not negotiate, Tony’s mother (a touching Paulina Garcia) refuses to leave and even puts a sign in the window to hire a new staff. Furious, Audrey starts eviction proceedings, ignoring the unjust new plights of poor, hard-working immigrants whose work, integrity and mom-pop family neighborhood shops are being replaced by so-called fashionable, expensive and trendy emporiums selling sushi and designer cupcakes, and the boys’ parents try to break them up. The kids retaliate by refusing to speak to their families—a protest that leads to an unsolvable boycott. The result is sad, disruptive and resistant to what modern movies have come to indict as the predictable Happy Hollywood Ending.
It’s a wafer-thin story, enriched by the sincerity of a wonderful cast and by the brand of sensitivity and perception Sachs has trademarked. He knows how to tell any story, large or small, with remarkable nuance and myriad details that endear his viewers to his characters. This time he shares writing credits with Mauricio Zacharias. It’s a collaboration that leaves no stone unturned to make us understand and identify with every point of view, both young and old. Unfortunately, what Sachs lacks is a satisfactory way to bring his ideas to an acceptable close. Love is Strange had an ending that asked more questions than it asked, and Little Men suffers from the same kind of unsettling denouement. As endearing as they are, the boys are forced to make their own compromises which, in ways best understood by the young, might be more mature than those of their parents but no more satisfying. People survive and they move forward, diminished but real, like life.