In protest against their parents, two boys stop talking to them. That's the premise of two Yasujiro Ozu classics, 1932's I Was Born, But.... and 1959's Ohayo. Those films inspired Little Men, directed by Ira Sachs, who has shown an Ozu-like humanism in previous efforts like Love Is Strange. Sachs' latest is also warm, subtle, and observant, but feels a little undercooked.
Unlike Ozu's kids, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri) are not brothers. The two 13-year-olds don't even know each other as the story begins, when Jake learns his grandfather Max has died.
Soon, Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) are hosting the post-funeral reception at Max's home in Brooklyn. They intend to move themselves and son Jake into the building, which Brian and his sister Audrey (Talia Balsam) have inherited. Downstairs, a struggling dress shop owned by a Chile-born Leonor (Paulina Garcia), single mom of Tony, is paying one-fifth the market rent.
Brian is an underemployed actor who relies on wife Kathy, a psychotherapist, to pay the bills. Boosting the shop's rent would benefit the family, but Brian is reluctant to squeeze Leonor, who was close to his father. But his sister insists he squeeze away.
Jake's parents don't explain this to their introverted son, as he and the outgoing Tony become inseparable. Jake's an aspiring painter and Tony wants to be an actor; they both plan to apply to New York's performing-arts high school. When not discussing their futures, they play video games or explore Brooklyn on a scooter (Tony) and rollerblades (Jake).
Their respective parents begin to feud, so the kids stop talking to them. Sometimes the silence is highlighted by spare piano cascades composed by Dickon Hinchliffe in the style of Philip Glass.
The human price of gentrification is a theme Little Men shares with Sachs' Love Is Strange. Both films also feature Alfred Molina, who has a cameo here. And although Sachs has often focused on gay characters, there may not be any in this tale: if Jake is in love with the unambiguously heterosexual Tony, he doesn't know it himself.
That's believable enough, but Little Men errs in not demonstrating how the boys' relationship develops. Sachs and co-scripter Mauricio Zacharias skip from the kids' meeting to what may be months later, when their friendship has become as much a part of the families' lives as Leonor's sewing machine, Kathy's emergency calls from patients, and Brian's rehearsals for a production of Chekhov's The Seagull — another seriocomic ensemble piece.
It's telling that many of Jake and Tony's scenes are presented as dialogue-free montages. The friends wander the city wordlessly, or venture to an after-school teen disco where the music's too loud for much conversation. That's why their final moment together — or apart — doesn't sting. It's not all that different from what came before.
If the characters of the two boys seem thin (and idealized), the adults (and their flaws) are persuasive. Negotiating about the future of the dress shop, Brian, Kathy, and Leonor all present themselves as reasonable, yet their self-interest soon emerges. Perhaps most interesting is Leonor, slyly aware that she's not an innocent martyr to "improving" property values.
She's willing to play that part, however, which is just one of the ways the film is about performance. Little Men's liveliest scene sees Tony performing an acting exercise with his teacher, suggesting that the film is partly about learning one's role in the Chekhovian play of daily life.