'Little Men' Combines Stark Economic Realities With Hope For A Better Future

Aug 5, 2016
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In director Ira Sachs' new film "Little Men," two adolescent boys become increasingly close while their parents grow further and further apart, engaging in a bitter struggle over the lease to a Brooklyn dress shop. The film premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It features Greg Kinnear and Chilean star Paulina Garcia. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In his two most recent films, director Ira Sachs has found a brilliant prism for posing the question - how responsible should we be for our fellow humans? That prism is the New York real estate market.

Consider his 2014 film, "Love Is Strange," which centers on an older same-sex couple, an artist and a Catholic school music teacher played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina who can finally be legally married in New York, but can't afford to keep their apartment when the teacher gets fired by the archdiocese. The men move into different apartments, sleeping on friends' couches and relatives' bunk beds. And when they have a drink at the Stonewall Inn, the irony is bitter. Their cultural horizons have expanded while their economic horizons have shrunk.

In Sachs' wonderful new film "Little Men" the economics are just as stark. An old man dies, and his children inherit his brownstone, the first floor of which is rented out to the dress shop of a struggling Chilean designer and single mother named Leonor, played by Paulina Garcia. It turns out that, given gentrification, she's now paying as little as a fifth the going rate, which didn't bother the old man, who liked her and liked her designs. He also liked her young son, Tony, played by Michael Barbieri, an aspiring actor who dreams of going to LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts. The new landlords, however, they're not presented as greedy.

Greg Kinnear plays Brian, a marginal actor married to a successful psychotherapist, Kathy, played by Jennifer Ehle. They have a 13-year-old son named Jake, a gifted artist, played by Theo Taplitz. Jake becomes friends with Leonor's son, Tony. But as the two boys - the little men - grow closer and closer, the tension between the parents over a new lease keeps building. At one point, Jake and Tony vow they'll never talk to their parents again, which gets Brian's goat when he and Kathy are driving the boys to the theater.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LITTLE MEN")

JENNIFER EHLE: (As Kathy) Jake, it's your father's opening night.

GREG KINNEAR: (As Brian) Do you two ever think about anybody other than yourselves? Say something, Jake. Say something. One of the hardest things to realize when you're a child is that your parents are people, too. You understand that? They care about things. They make mistakes, that they try to do what they think is the right thing to do. Does any of what I'm saying make any sense to you?

MICHAEL BARBIERI: (As Tony) (Laughter).

KINNEAR: (As Brian) What's so funny, Tony? Why don't you tell me what's so funny, Tony? You think you got it in you to be an actor? Take one rejection after another, we'll see how you react when you don't get into LaGuardia. We'll just see then.

EHLE: (As Kathy) Brian.

KINNEAR: (As Brian) Damn it.

EDELSTEIN: There's a melodramatic structure to "Little Men" - I can't pay the rent, you must pay the rent - but it's buried deep, the way it is in the plays of Chekhov, whom I mention because Brian is acting in a threadbare production of "The Seagull." And if that's not a cue for using Chekhovian, I don't know what is. You can feel the characters struggling against that melodrama. Brian is an artist who's not quite making it. He doesn't want to evict anyone, especially another artist who's not lucky enough to have inherited a house. Leonor, meanwhile, is an unusually self-sabotaging victim. She responds furiously to the idea of even a small increase in her rent.

The director seems to be resisting the melodrama, too. I don't think Sachs and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, want to write a movie in which grown-ups like Brian and Kathy crush kids' hopes. That's just the world they see. But they gravitate to the more buoyant elements of the story - Tony's acting class, Jake's drawing. The portraits of the kids - both of them burgeoning artists - suggest a lot of hope for a better world.

As Jake, Theo Taplitz's introspection gives way to an explosion of tears that had me wiping away my own. Barbieri's Tony first struck me as way over the top, but this young actors exuberance turns out to be the key to his character. There's a tangential scene in an improv class that's the highlight of the film, a mirror exercise in which Tony and a teacher scream back and forth in each other's faces. And the kid won't back down, as if acting is Tony's way of saying, I exist. The audience I saw the film with erupted in applause.

Kinnear and Ehle are superb at portraying hopelessly divided characters. And I don't know how to do justice to Paulina Garcia, a big star in Chile. When Leonor smokes outside the store, it's as if she's pouring all her rage and grief into that cigarette. "Little Men" is quietly devastating.

GROSS: David Edelstein, a film critic for New York Magazine. Monday on FRESH AIR, Colson Whitehead returns to our show to talk about his new book "The Underground Railroad," a novel about escaped slaves that was described in a New York Times book review as leaving the reader with a devastating understanding of the terrible costs of slavery. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.