Review: Young New Yorkers seek connection in Ira Sachs’ ‘Little Men’

Michael Barbieri, left, and Theo Taplitz in the movie "Little Men."
(Magnolia Pictures)

Many movies use adolescence to express rebellion, precociousness and rage. Ira Sachs’ beautifully observed “Little Men” zeros in on teen-spirit qualities that might, by conventional standards, be considered less cinematic: creativity and innocence, a tender spark brought to life by terrific newcomers Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri.

They play Jake and Antonio, respectively, 13-year-old New Yorkers who are fast friends almost from the instant they become neighbors. One paints, the other acts. They recognize the artist in each other, in a way that’s as offhand and uncomplicated as the hours they spend playing video games. Complicating factors will arise of course — mainly in the form of parental units, themselves trying to navigate the economic currents of city life, not to mention their own disappointments.

In Sachs’ modestly scaled drama, those economic currents eddy around real estate, a subject that he and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias tackled with less success in the implausible yet inexplicably adored 2014 drama “Love Is Strange.” In that film, matters of realty served as a weak plot contrivance bordering on contortion. Here, the financial exigencies that entangle the characters are not just convincing but piercing. As Jake and Antonio’s parents face off over a store’s lease, no one has a monopoly on reason, but some try to hold onto it longer than others.

The store in question is the charming, if not particularly busy, Brooklyn boutique where Antonio’s mother, Leonor (Paulina Garcia), sells handcrafted dresses. Her new upstairs neighbors are also her new landlords, having inherited the small building: actor Brian (Greg Kinnear, pitch-perfect), whose career seems to have stalled at small nonprofit theaters; his wife, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle, ditto), psychotherapist and breadwinner; and their son, Jake (Taplitz), a fetchingly awkward introvert.


Leonor, who’s raising Antonio (Barbieri) on her own, greets the Manhattan transplants with polite condolences that quickly give way to wariness. An accomplished Chilean actress best known to U.S. audiences for her captivating turn as a divorcée in “Gloria,” Garcia indicates with every glance and gesture how Leonor is bracing for the bad news that Brian will soon deliver, a rent increase that will more accurately align with “market value,” the mantra droned into him by his sister (Talia Balsam) as they sort out their father’s estate. Presented with the new lease, Leonor counters with photos of her and Antonio with Brian’s father, invoking the bond of friendship and the unwritten wishes of the dead.

While the grownups’ civility grows increasingly strained — “I’m trained in conflict resolution,” Kathy assures the unyielding Leonor, who saves her cruelest zingers for Brian — the boys’ friendship feels the fallout, and it further unites them. Antonio, with his loose-limbed swagger, boosts Jake’s self-confidence, even as the quieter boy harbors inchoate feelings for his friend. But though the attraction is unrequited, the friendship is mutually enriching.

Sachs and cinematographer Óscar Durán distill the ease and fluidity of the bond in scenes that follow the duo as they glide through the streets, Antonio on scooter, Jake on skates, urged on by Dickon Hinchliffe’s gentle gallop of a score. In that most vertical of cities, the film turns horizontal movement into a hopeful motif: the whoosh of subway cars, glimpses of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, all of it suggesting connection.

Amid the march of gentrification and thorny perceptions of privilege, connection is an ideal — perhaps unattainable — for the story’s adults. Some fare better than others in “Little Men,” but no one gets off easy. Even with her son’s love and the legal guidance of a trusted friend (Alfred Molina, returning to the Sachs fold after “Love Is Strange”), Leonor is ultimately alone in her sense of being wronged. Caught up in the conflict, Antonio and Jake learn how gratifying true connection can be, whether it proves fragile or endures.



‘Little Men’

MPAA rating: PG, for thematic elements, smoking and some language.

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes


Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; and Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood