If Martin Scorsese was the quintessential auteur of New York in the 1970s and ’80s — with its wise guys and street toughs — and Spike Lee that of New York in the late ’80s and ’90s — with its Balkanized enclaves and attitudes — then Ira Sachs is gradually becoming the quintessential auteur of today’s New York — the one of class inequality, and of relationships transformed by the changing city around them. As evidenced by Love is Strange, Keep the Lights On, and now Little Men, he depicts this world with a clarity and generosity that lends it a richness far beyond what’s immediately on the screen. In Little Men, two 13-year-olds are brought together by an odd bit of circumstance. Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) is the son of small-time actor Brian (Greg Kinnear) and psychiatrist Kathy (Jennifer Ehle). When Jake’s grandfather dies, his family comes into possession of the deceased’s Brooklyn house. Tony (Michael Barbieri) is the son of Leonor (Paulina Garcia), who runs the small dress shop in the building’s ground-floor unit.
Both quite precocious, shy Jake and vivacious Tony hit it off quickly, playing video games and exploring the city around them. Tony helps bring Jake out of his shell, and Jake helps Tony dream bigger. Both want to go to LaGuardia High School for the Arts, Jake with ambitions to be an artist and Tony an actor. (A scene where Tony and his acting teacher, played by the boy’s real-life acting teacher, do an improvisation exercise is the film’s highpoint, prompting spontaneous, mid-movie applause at my Sundance screening.)
But the kids’ connection is soon disrupted by the adults and their grievances. This is New York, after all, and dear departed grandpa’s house is prime Brooklyn real estate. Leonor has been paying the same rent for years, and the value of that space has quintupled. “Once again, our warm, wise, lovable father has left us with a big mess that we have to clean up,” Brian’s sister Audrey (Talia Balsam) says.
It would be easy to portray this dilemma with clear bad guys and good guys — to show the evil, snooty gentrifiers destroying the life of a kind-hearted Chilean tailor. But Sachs doesn’t go for easy kills. He shows the predicaments of both sides. Jake’s family isn’t exactly rolling in money; dad’s experimental, off-Broadway productions of The Seagull and whatnot don’t pay the bills. This isn’t an entitled family. They are, in their own way, victims of the same forces transforming Leonor’s neighborhood, just a little further up the chain. And for her part, Leonor isn’t above playing a little dirty. “I was more his family than you were,” she tells Jake’s dad, a little too bluntly suggesting that grandpa cared for her more than he did for his own family. Is it the truth, or is that her desperation speaking? Does it matter?
As befits a story that winds up turning on space and its inherent value, Sachs likes to film his characters in the context of the places that they inhabit. He gets in close enough to give a performance life, but rarely so close that the rest of the world falls away; space, in this movie, is inescapable. He’s also got an eye for human behavior — for both well-meaning confrontation and its flipside, disdainful pleasantry. Beneath every adult interaction, you sense another exchange lurking just beneath the surface. It’s a grown-up doublespeak born of experience. By contrast, the kids speak with a directness that is both refreshing and sad — you know their earnestness and enthusiasm will not pass through this ordeal unchanged. Little Men has a melancholy edge, but it’s not really a depressing film. For all the despair onscreen, what remains afterwards are its luminous characterizations and big-hearted filmmaking.