In its gentle, compassionate way, the unassuming drama Little Men says as much about self-preservation and mistrust as any hand-wringing, message-based movie. Director and cowriter Ira Sachs uses a simple story about the friendship between two teen boys as a springboard to address the myriad obstacles that keep people from different walks of life from seeing eye-to-eye. Never smug in its observations and always fair to all its characters, Little Men leaves us moved in an offhand, almost accidental manner. The film has all the breeziness of an ordinary day, albeit one with gray clouds on the horizon.
The film’s stars are Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle as Brian and Kathy, a married couple living in New York who has just moved into the Brooklyn home of Brian’s recently passed dad. But the story’s center point is their son Jake (Theo Taplitz), a shy aspiring visual artist applying to a prestigious art academy for high-schoolers. The family’s new home is in the same building as a mom-and-pop boutique run by a Chilean woman named Leonor (Paulina Garcia), who was friends with Brian’s father for many years. Now that his father’s dead, Brian needs to think about raising the rent on her store, something his father hadn’t done in decades.
While tension grows between Brian and Leonor, a friendship forms between their sons. Tony (Michael Barbieri) is a gregarious oddball who longs to be an actor like Brian, but because his family isn’t as wealthy as Jake’s, it’s going to be much harder for him to get into the same academy as Tony. The roots of the teens’ bond isn’t entirely clear—there’s an implication that perhaps Jake is smitten with Tony—but part of it seems to be that, because they’re both only children, they share a longing for companionship that’s unique to kids like them.
From that setup, you can probably guess what’s going to happen. And you’d be both right and wrong—the specifics of how Brian and Leonor’s clash resolves itself aren’t nearly as important as how Sachs puts into motion the familiar pressures of family, money and career that consume the adult characters. Sachs and cowriter Mauricio Zacharias don’t throw many twists at us, which doesn’t mean that the film’s terribly predictable. It’s more accurate to say that Little Men proceeds in a wistfully recognizable way: Nothing that happens is surprising, but that’s only because Sachs follows the story through to its logical conclusion, with each step along the way believable and unavoidable.
Sachs has said that Little Men is the third film in his so-called New York trilogy, which started with 2012’s brutally sad love story Keep the Lights On and continued two years later for the much brighter (but still melancholy) Love Is Strange. Little Men is closer in spirit to Love Is Strange, using a deceptively everyday tale to poke around the corners of New York City to get a sense of the city’s class divisions. There’s no question that Jake and Tony come from different socioeconomic strata, but Sachs neither goes for the obvious observations nor does he present either family in exactly the way we’d expect.
As we’ll soon learn, Brian’s acting career has floundered for years, Kathy’s psychotherapy practice making her the family breadwinner. Meanwhile, Leonor is no doe-eyed innocent: From the first time she meets the privileged Kathy, we can sense a judgmental streak in this woman, who doesn’t mind subtly targeting Brian’s weak points. (Without ever quite coming out and saying it, Leonor gives him the impression that she and his father were lovers. And she’s happy to tell Brian negative comments his dad shared with her about him.) Little Men’s teens are presented as unformed youngsters figuring out their hormones and what they want to be when they grow up—by comparison, the adults are a bundle of weary anxieties and hang-ups, folks stuck with lives they didn’t exactly want and now don’t know what to do with.
Kinnear and Ehle hit just the right note of enlightened arrogance as a married couple who want to believe they’re always being thoughtful, never quite acknowledging that however they spin it, they’re trying to put Leonor out of business. (One of the film’s most divine comic moments is when Kathy condescendingly tells Leonor that, as an expert in conflict resolution, she really is well-suited to handling this disagreement.) But they’re no monsters: Kinnear plays Brian as a good guy who’s not quite capable of doing something heroic or gracious in this difficult situation, still trying his best to be a good father to Jake.
Meanwhile, Garcia is all simmering, passive-aggressive resentment as Leonor. Behind the character’s pinched smile, we sense a lifetime of having to put up with the more fortunate, always having to balance between being friendly and sticking up for herself. It’s a performance that snarls a bit, pushing Brian and Kathy to put aside their faux-kindness and address their dollars-and-cents dilemma with her.
Little Men adeptly pinpoints the poisonous self-interest that cuts us off from others, examining how being pragmatic and looking out for ourselves undermines communities. The fate of Leonor’s store is fairly certain from the beginning, but the movie is much less clear about what will become of these boys. Searching for love, finding their creative muse, Jake and Tony draw closer as their families become more fractious. That’s why the ending is so heartbreaking. Sachs presents one final scene with the teens, a silent sequence in which they don’t even see each other. But it tells us everything we need to know about the thin line between cementing a friendship and going your separate ways.
Director: Ira Sachs
Writers: Mauricio Zacharias, Ira Sachs
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina Garcia, Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri
Release Date Premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and Vice President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.