Ira Sachs understands that new friendships develop quietly. They do not need drunken confessions, or major tests of loyalty. Instead, friendships come from a silent sense of comfort, and repetition. Like others my age, many of my oldest friendships have their basis in countless bike rides and games of Nintendo. Sachs’ latest film Little Men delves into that fragile bond, and how it can be ephemeral. It is also more ambitious that, using its young heroes to uncover the kind of urban story that is heartrendingly common. Gentrification is a thorny topic, particularly for a fictional film, and yet Sachs weaves the political and personal so that every character somewhat sympathetic, and kind of a jerk, too.
Jake (Theo Taplitz) lives in Manhattan with his parents Brian and Kathy (Greg Kinner and Jennifer Ehle). They receive some awful news: Brian father’s passed away, so now affairs must get in order. The family heads to Brooklyn, where Brian’s father owned an entire building, including the dress shop he rented out on the ground level. Leonor (Paulina García) owns the dress shop, where her son Tony (Michael Barbieri) hangs out, too. Jake and Tony become fast friends, spending all their time together, while there is tension between Brian and Leonor. Brian discovers his father had no lease with Leonor, and asked she only pay a pittance in rent ($1100 per month). With mounting bills and a stagnating career, Brian demands Leonor pay her fair share. She cannot – she had a friendship with her departed tenant, who did not require much – so she and Brian try to smooth things over for the sons’ sake.
Like Love Is Strange, Sachs’ previous film, Little Men is about the challenges and systemic cruelties of New York City life. Brian is not a monster, and yet he has no choice but to effectively upend Leonor’s entire business. Leonor is no freeloader, and yet she cannot afford the new rents in her changing neighborhood. There are no histrionics, or moments where Sachs and co-screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias opt for melodrama. The dialogue is mannered and authentic, almost as if Sachs eavesdrops on his neighbors for inspiration. Cinema verite – or the illusion of it – defines the technique: his camera is usually static, keeping a respectful, curious distance from the action. The performances reflect that same commitment to realism: Kinnear, Egle, and García all underplay their roles. We care about them because they stubbornly refuse to show how much they care about each other. Experience and heartbreak weigh them down, so they cannot afford the luxury of outbursts. Sachs methodically lets the drama play out with a sense of quiet foreboding. There are no surprises, only delays.
What elevates Little Men is Jake and Tony’s friendship. Taplitz and Barbieri make their acting debuts, and their performances are an incredible study of contrasts. While Taplitz is reserved and shy – probably like Jake – Barbieri is a force of nature. He is loud, even a little obnoxious, and his over-the-top Brooklyn accent is compounded by his nasal voice. Sachs does not stereotype these boys, and instead looks at the patterns that define them. There share long periods of silence, they yack about bullshit, and when they confess their affections, they’re awkward about it. Sachs’ sense of realism infects their friendship, too: we see how different they really are, and they start to see it, too. Little Men end with a strange epilogue: only one of the boys speaks, while the other is silent. Sachs does not comment on the action – or lack of it – so painful wisdom defines the conclusion. Our best friends rarely stay that way, and soon a mutual sense of nostalgia is sometimes all that’s left.