Get ready, one of the most heart-rending movies of 2016 may be Little Men. It’s one of those films that will hit you like a ton of bricks with a final, subtle scene that encapsulates a somber sort of loss that is sadder in its seeming lack of significance. It’s just one moment that captures a change that no one wanted but no one could prevent. That director Ira Sachs (who co-wrote the script with Mauricio Zacharias) captures the moment with no sentiment and a brutal matter-of-factness will rip the rug from right under you.
The thing is, everyone will acknowledge this moment of change as something that may have happened to themselves but one can only recognize in hindsight. It’s a sort of reverse nostalgia. The film’s title refers to two, young teenage boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri). They have become fast friends thanks to the business relationship of their parents.
With the passing of his grandfather, Jake’s parents, Brian and Kathy Jardine (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle), decide to move from Manhattan to the Brooklyn apartment his father has inherited. Downstairs, a seamstress, Tony’s single mother Leonor Calvelli (Paulina García), has converted her apartment’s front area to a shop. Though Tony offers a warm welcome to Jake, inviting him to play on his video game system, little does Jake realize he is but a child riding the tides of change whose repercussions he cannot fully predict, much less manuever.
Jake and Tony connect despite their differences in backgrounds. Jake has a rather formal delivery when speaking, and Tony has this uninhibited, youthful casual quality that’s both dorky and charming. Both grow to aspire to enter a prestigious art school together, Jake for painting and Tony for acting. It’s a kinship they see no end to and hope to carry out to thier future.
As the children make their plans so do the adults. They, however, have an alliance that hangs on business, not friendship. It turns out Brian’s father was generous to Leonor, and she is not paying the market price for renting the apartment. As a struggling actor to his wife’s steady and well-paying work as a psychotherapist, the pressure is on Brian to get the market value. This creates a gulf between the adults that does not factor in the innocent world of children. “Our parents are involved in a business matter,” says Tony to Jake as they walk past them to Tony’s room and some bonding over video games. Little do they know about the collateral damage this business will have on their friendship.
Sachs balances the dynamics between adults and children with sharp contrasts. Things are complicated with adults. During his father’s wake, Brian seems disconnected. Sachs places him in the background in shallow focus, the foreground blurred. He recites “Thank you for coming” mechanically to those who express condolences. Only in the basement, alone, can he find space to express his grief.
This hiding of feelings is not for the children, and they find ways to fight back to adult decisions as children would. Best of all, however, are the beatific moments when the boys are alone together. Sachs allows for respite in long tracking shots of the boys tearing down streets and sidewalks — Jake on skates and Tony on a bike. Blissful and idyllic music by Dickon Hinchliffe takes over the soundtrack. It’s a recurring scene reserved for the ideal moments. It’s not sentiment. It’s a world away from the adults. After all, these children are at the mercy of adult actions and decisions.
Meanwhile, parents speak with an iciness that succumbs to the demands of their roles and the expectations of their circumstances. But Sachs is delicate and aware of the baggage of the parents, which is never clearly spelled out though it’s referenced in Brain’s failures as a son and a father. He is back-loaded with an unseen past that has defined who he is, which he fights against an invisible current of expectation. The terrible part is that the pattern is clear, Jake is to inherent this, and it’s not the kid’s fault. It’s the circumstance.
Little Men runs 85 minutes and is rated PG. It opened exclusively in our South Florida area at the Coral Gables Art Cinema this past Friday. On Aug. 26, the film expands to the Bill Cosford Cinema on the Coral Gables campus of the University of Miami and O Cinema Miami Beach. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Magnolia Pictures provided all images in this post and a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.
(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)