Little Men Overcomes Its Melodramatic Premise With Gentle Humanity

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Michael Barbieri and Theo Taplitz in Little Men Photo: Eric McNatt

In his quietly devastating Little Men, Ira Sachs continues to use the New York real-estate market and its gut-wrenching traumas as a springboard for asking the ultimate question about our responsibilities to other people. In Love Is Strange, his 2014 film, two older men (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) who have just been legally married end up homeless; when they have a drink at the Stonewall Inn, the juxtaposition of cultural advancement and capitalistic indifference is grim. Little Men has the same sorrowful tone, though its protagonists — young boys of similar artistic temperaments but vastly different backgrounds — are less schooled in the free market, and they unite to keep their elders from putting money above decency. As grown-ups we realize it’s not so simple. But it’s simpler than we realize.

Sachs’s themes are so gently introduced and humanely explored that you’re barely aware of the melodramatic setup. An unsuccessful actor, Brian (Greg Kinnear), and his successful surgeon wife, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), move with their 13-year-old son, Jake (Theo Taplitz), into Brian’s late father’s brownstone — where the first floor is rented out to a dress shop owned by a Chilean single mother named Leonor (Paulina Garcia). Given gentrification, Leonor is now paying maybe a fifth of the going rate and still barely making it; she has depended on the kindness and apparently deep friendship of her dead landlord. The awkward conversations commence shortly after the new owners move in, during which time Leonor’s effusive son, Tony (Michael Barbieri), an aspiring actor, bonds with Jake, a gifted artist.

You can’t hate Brian and Kathy. He’s practicing his art in a threadbare production of Chekhov’s The Seagull while his wife is carrying the family financially. And Leonor seems unreasonably resentful of even a small rent increase. There is a villain of sorts in Greg’s sister (Talia Balsam), who presses him to evict Leonor. But even she has her reasons. Siblings do get worked up about their respective inheritances.

The power of Little Men is in how the characters resist the melodramatic flow (which is, come to think of it, how Chekhov works, too). Kinnear gives a layered portrait of impotence: His Brian is an actor, not an evictor, and Ehle makes it clear that her resentment of Leonor is born of exhaustion and fear, not greed. Sachs and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, resist the flow, too; their scenes make you feel as if they’re fighting not to go where they know they have to. (The film’s cluttered look suggests that space is at a premium, valued by the foot.) I don’t know how to do justice to Garcia. Her Leonor moves under enormous weight — the kind that smothers creativity in the cradle. When she smokes outside her shop, it’s as if her anger is keeping the cigarette burning.

Sachs would obviously rather spend time with his title characters, the burgeoning artists. Barbieri at first struck me as way over the top, but his exuberance connects with his character’s. There’s a scene in an improv class in which Tony and the teacher shout back and forth (it’s an exercise) that goes on and on until you think, “Acting for this kid is existential.” Taplitz’s introspection, meanwhile, gives way to an explosion of tears that had me wiping away my own. The kids’ battle might be hopeless, but Little Men made me think of Dr. Johnson’s “It is necessary to hope, though hope should always be deluded; for hope itself is happiness and its frustrations, however frequent, are less dreadful than its extinction.” There’s no chance of hope going extinct in Jake. He’s too open — like his director.

*This article appears in the July 25, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.