'Little Men' Puzzle Out Mysteries Of Friendship And Growth

Aug 5, 2016
Originally published on August 8, 2016 5:21 pm

New York indie filmmaker Ira Sachs makes quietly observant relationship movies that are designed to get under an audience's skin in the gentlest of fashions, but to the most emotional of effects.

His last film, which dealt with the pressures the outside world exerted on a marriage, was called Love Is Strange. His latest is called Little Men, but might easily be subtitled "Friendship Is Strange."

It centers on two 13-year-olds in Brooklyn: Tony (Michael Barbieri), a boisterous, confident, athletic kid from the neighborhood, and Jake (Theo Taplitz), an awkward new arrival, who is both sensitive and a budding artist. They meet for the first time when Jake drops some things he's carrying to his grandfather's wake, and Tony, rushing to help him, compliments a sketch he's done.

Tony knows what Jake hasn't yet heard: Jake's family is doing some belt-tightening — his Mom (Jennifer Ehle) is a social worker, and his dad (Greg Kinnear) is an actor, and not a particularly successful one.

For financial reasons, the family is moving into Grandpa's old house. Also for financial reasons, they're going to raise the rent on the store downstairs where Tony's mom, played with understated grace by the great Chilean actress Paulina Garcia, makes her living. This will cause friction, but not at first.

Initially, Jake's folks are pleased to see him becoming friends with Tony. "It's not easy," his father says, noting his son's shyness and reserve, "with him and other boys."

It is easy with him and Tony though. Soon they're racing around Brooklyn together, Jake shaky on fancy inline skates, Tony leading the way on a low-rent scooter.

As the boys become friends, though, their parents are drawing battle lines. The neighborhood is changing: Jake's parents are part of an incoming, gentrifying wave, and Tony's mom is likely to be swept out in its wake. It's a social upheaval that filmmaker Ira Sachs captures not in confrontations, but in their avoidance. Tony's mom keeps trying strenuously not to engage with Jake's parents, especially when Jake's mother suggests more condescendingly than she means to that she's good at "conflict resolution" and wants to help smooth things between their households.

The boys, who are extraordinary together on camera — natural, relaxed, hinting at a connection more mature than they're quite ready to deal with — come up with a variation on their parents' lack of engagement. Caught in the middle of a financial struggle, they exercise the only power they have, and stop communicating with their parents. Not one word passes among them for several days, which exacts an emotional penalty without quite fixing any of the problems. Awkward repercussions ensue.

Understated, filled with small gestures and offhand remarks, Little Men gathers force as it goes. Everyone's human, everyone's trying, they're all sort of pulling in the same direction, yet things are still falling apart. It's no accident that the screenplay has Jake's dad acting in an Anton Chekhov play. Sachs has a touch much like that Russian playwright for domestic situations that are real — funny and wrenching all at once.

Also for moments that don't need dialogue to have a kind of eloquence: Jake, for instance, skating where once he and Tony had sped along together, now clearly more confident, but on his own.

Is that a loss? Is it growth? Little Men has the wisdom to let the viewer puzzle that one out.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

New York filmmaker Ira Sachs makes relationship movies that are quietly observant about modern life. His last film was called "Love Is Strange." His latest is called "Little Men." But NPR critic Bob Mondello says it could be subtitled friendship is strange.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Two 13 year olds in Brooklyn - Tony, a boisterous and athletic kid from the neighborhood, Jake, an awkward new arrival and budding artist. They meet for the first time when Jake drops some things he's carrying to his grandfather's wake, and Tony rushes to help out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LITTLE MEN")

MICHAEL BARBIERI: (As Tony Calvelli) Did you draw this?

THEO TAPLITZ: (As Jake Jardine) Yeah. It's the sky above Camp Jupiter, the day of the battle.

BARBIERI: (As Tony Calvelli) You're a real artist.

TAPLITZ: (As Jake Jardine) Not really.

BARBIERI: (As Tony Calvelli) Yeah you are. This is awesome.

GREG KINNEAR: (As Brian Jardine) You got it, son?

TAPLITZ: (As Jake Jardine) Yeah, I got it.

BARBIERI: (As Tony Calvelli) You know, you're going to like this neighborhood. It's become a very Bohemian area.

TAPLITZ: (As Jake Jardine) It's just a reception.

BARBIERI: (As Tony Calvelli) I know, but if you move in, I can show you around.

MONDELLO: Tony's heard what Jake hasn't yet. Jake's family is doing some belt tightening. His mom's a social worker. Dad's an actor and not a particularly successful one.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LITTLE MEN")

TAPLITZ: (As Jake Jardine) You said you weren't doing this nonprofit stuff.

KINNEAR: (As Brian Jardine) Things have changed.

JENNIFER EHLE: (As Kathy Jardine) You should applaud your father for being adaptable. It's what life's all about.

MONDELLO: For financial reasons, the family is moving into grandpa's old house. Also for financial reasons, they're going to raise the rent on the store downstairs where Tony's mom makes her living. This will cause friction, but not at first.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LITTLE MEN")

PAULINA GARCIA: (Leonor Calvelli) Jake is asking if Tony can stay for dinner.

TAPLITZ: (As Jake Jardine) And a sleep over.

KINNEAR: (As Brian Jardine) Tony, you want to have hot dogs and hamburgers with us tonight?

BARBIERI: (As Tony Calvelli) Yes.

KINNEAR: (As Brian Jardine) That is a done deal.

TAPLITZ: (As Jake Jardine) Yes.

GARCIA: (As Leonor Calvelli) I just wanted to make sure with you.

KINNEAR: (As Brian Jardine) No, no, no, please. I can't tell you how happy I am that Jake has a new friend, you know, it's not easy with them and other boys.

MONDELLO: It is easy with him and Tony, though. Soon they're racing around Brooklyn together - Jake, shaky on his fancy in-line skates, Tony leading the way on his low-rent scooter. As the boys become friends, though, their parents are drawing battle lines. The neighborhood is changing - Jake's parents part of an incoming gentrifying wave, Tony's mom likely to be swept out in its wake. It's social upheaval that filmmaker Ira Sachs captures, not in confrontations but in their avoidance - Tony's mom Leonor trying not to engage with Jake's parents.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LITTLE MEN")

EHLE: (As Kathy Jardine) Leonor, you know that I am trained in conflict resolution, and I'm hoping to help here.

GARCIA: (As Leonor Calvelli) Has your husband asked you to do this?

EHLE: (As Kathy Jardine) No. I'm not sure you know, but he's rehearsing a new play.

GARCIA: (As Leonor Calvelli) No. I haven't seen your husband.

MONDELLO: The boys come up with a variation on that lack of engagement as they struggle with the mess their parents are making.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LITTLE MEN")

BARBIERI: (As Tony Calvelli) I'm not talking to my mother anymore.

TAPLITZ: (As Jake Jardine) Why not?

BARBIERI: (As Tony Calvelli) She said you can't come over. I don't think your dad wants me around anymore either. He may be too chicken to say it, but I can tell.

TAPLITZ: (As Jake Jardine) Why are they so mad at us?

BARBIERI: (As Tony Calvelli) Our parents are involved in a business matter. And it's getting ugly so they're taking it out on us.

TAPLITZ: (As Jake Jardine) You're right. My dad was very cold to you. I won't talk to my parents then either.

MONDELLO: Understated, filled with small gestures and offhand remarks, "Little Men" gathers force as it goes. Everyone's human. Everyone is trying, and things are still falling apart. It's no accident that the screenplay has Jake's dad acting in Chekhov.

Sachs has a touch much like that Russian playwright for domestic situations that are real and funny and wrenching all at once, also for moments that don't need dialogue to have a kind of eloquence - Jake, for instance, skating where once he and Tony had sped along together, now clearly more confident but on his own. Is that a loss? Is it growth? "Little Men" has the wisdom to let the viewer puzzle that one out. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.