The hardest part about growing up – as a child – is having no control. Our lives are dictated by unpreventable outlying forces (mainly parents), and we often must seek different forms of comfort when life shifts unexpectedly (for the billionth time). That’s the touching theme of Ira Sachs’ Little Men, a pint-sized story about grown-up issues. Sachs sympathizes with the unfortunate losers of skyrocketing rents and borough gentrification, yet the film’s biggest shockwaves are felt by his two underage first-time feature stars – both of whom do a wonderful job just rolling with life’s punches.
Theo Taplitz stars as Jake Jardine, a Manhattan transplant trying to establish a new beginning in Brooklyn. Michael Barbieri plays his unexpected best friend and tour guide, Tony Calvelli. The two boys immediately hit it off, but there’s one problem – Jake’s dad (Brian, played by Greg Kinnear) is in the process of raising Tony’s mother’s (Talia Balsam) tenant rent. Brian’s father was Audrey’s previous landlord, and he cared very deeply for her home-sewn clothing shop, but the times they are a changing. With the price of rent shooting upward, Brian must face a tough decision no one wants to make (except his pushy sister) – even if it means the end of Jake and Tony’s friendship.
It’s important that Sachs tells his story from both an adult and child perspective, because the gravity of Brian’s situation is real. Would he love to keep Audrey operating her clothing boutique amidst the craft beer bars and artisan coffee shops on every Brooklyn corner? Of course – but this is reality, and decisions must be made for the betterment of families. With survival in mind, Sachs does his due-diligence of remaining in a realistic New York City disaster where there’s no real “right answer” for any party.
Yet, from the eyes of a child, there’s no reason why Audrey’s shop must be shut down. Jake’s thoughts immediately start racing around ways to keep his relationship with Tony alive, because we’re still so optimistic in youth. Brian had wrestled with opinions and accepted his fate as a landlord villain, yet Jake cannot. Of course, immaturity still sets children and adults apart, as Jake’s only previous form of rebellion was not talking to his parents when they refused Tony’s company in their home on numerous occasions. But our hearts break as two children realize their great times were destined to end from their very first shared laugh, because we all remember our distant friends of decades past.
Credit Sachs’ unknown child actors with anchoring this strong indie dramedy, as both Taplitz and Barbieri navigate their parents’ argument with weighty disappointment. You can tell they don’t really grasp the bigger-picture, and can only protest by forming a silence pact that eats away at Kinnear’s struggling theater-acting father.
The boys are great, whether they’re bonding after a failed teen-approved rave, or playing video games past Jake’s TV time. It’s a reminder to enjoy the time we have together with loved ones and friends alike, because we never know when those bonds might break (for any reason, happy or sad). But, more importantly, it’s a callback for parents to remember how hard being a son and daughter was, while also showing children that being a parent ain’t so easy either.
That said, Little Men is a tad less prolific than Sachs’ previous credits like Love Is Strange, where the message feels a bit more mighty. Don’t get me wrong – Taplitz and Barbieri are both fantastic in their ambitious whimsy. Just look at the acting class scene where Barbieri aces a reactionary exercise with his teacher (a gut-busting treat). Alas, other scenes are missing that genuine confidence, where both Audrey and Brian’s actions against the boys feel a tad overplayed. It works for the overall story, but lacks that sense of NYC storytelling that Sachs is usually so in-tune with.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Little Men – in fact, it’s an encouraged family watch for more cinematically appreciative clans. It just lacks a bit of Ira Sachs’ usual dramatic heartbeat, and feels a smidgen short (maybe even incomplete). See it, watch it, learn from it, but just don’t expect a new classic in the Sachs catalog. Just a warming take on family dramatics and the troubles of growing up.
Little Men is yet another coming of age story that warmly remembers what it was actually like to come of age.