'Little Men': Sundance Review

A deceptively small movie that sneaks up and slays you with its emotional authenticity.

Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle play parents navigating an uneasy situation that affects their son's one real friendship in Ira Sach's intimate drama.

In the tender final image of Ira Sachs' Love is Strange, a teenage boy experiencing loss for the first time coasts off down a Manhattan street on his skateboard. At a key point in the director's beautiful new film, Little Men, an introverted 13-year-old glides on rollerblades around Brooklyn neighborhoods that, until recently, he explored with perhaps his first real friend. A sense of poetic continuity connects these two fine-grained portraits of New York life in other ways, too, even though the narratives are unrelated.

Sachs' best films — and this ranks among them — are a careful accumulation of small, acutely observed details. They add up to reveal a much larger humanistic picture that touches with unerring restraint on social issues as well as personal themes. In this case, that includes gentrification and class inequality, but also coming of age, loneliness and, arguably, inchoate sexuality. There's a finite theatrical audience for miniaturist work of such subtlety and intelligence, but Little Men deserves to find it.

At the film's center is a microscopic close-up on early adolescence; the precise moment when two young boys stand on the precipice separating childhood innocence from their first bruising understanding of the complexities of the adult world. But it's unlike other American screen depictions of that age, aside perhaps from some micro moments in the macro-mosaic of Boyhood. Sachs cites two Ozu films about children in conflict with their parents as the initial spark.

The first encounter between the two boys happens when Jake (Theo Taplitz) accompanies his parents, Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), to a funeral gathering at the Brooklyn home of his late grandfather, Max. He meets Tony (Michael Barbieri), whose single Chilean immigrant mother, Leonor (Paulina Garcia), runs a dress shop in a rental space downstairs. The differences between the boys are immediately apparent. Jake is polite and a little stiff, held back by his sense of what's appropriate for the occasion, while Tony is streetwise and spontaneous, a sparky kid with unpolished edges, open to instant connections. They become fast friends once Jake moves from Manhattan with his family to the Brooklyn house, which Brian inherited with his sister, Audrey (Talia Balsam).

Jake goes to a private school where he's viewed as an awkward outsider, while gregarious Tony moves with ease through the crowded ranks of his public school. They play videogames together, and Tony, who wants to be an actor, serves as Jake's guide to the neighborhood. Tony also takes an interest in Jake's paintings, and they make plans to apply to the same high school for the arts.

In gorgeous interludes that punctuate the movie, they zoom around Brooklyn — Jake on blades, Tony on a scooter — accompanied by the warm, surging melodies of Dickon Hinchliffe's score. With exquisite economy, Sachs suggests that many of the simple pleasures of childhood and the rewards of having a supportive friend are somewhat new to Jake.

His parents' awareness that Tony is filling a gap in their son's life makes them nervous when a tense situation arises with Leonor. Brian is an actor, in recent years working mainly in non-profit theater for lousy money. So psychotherapist Kathy has been supporting the family, and they moved for economic reasons. Leonor is pleasant with the new landlords, but she keeps her distance. When pushy Audrey comes over for dinner and says they need to talk, Leonor does everything possible to delay that conversation.

Like Love is Strange, real estate and money play a big part here. There's a clear picture of New York as a city in constant flux, both in the writing (the script is by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, co-writer on his last three features) and in telling details picked up in the limpid gaze of Oscar Duran's camera.

People displaced from one neighborhood displace people in another; long-standing local businesses are pushed out to make way for those that can pay higher rent. There can be few cities in the world where that voracious cycle happens faster than New York. Arresting shots of Manhattan from across the river seem to point up the chasm separating the citadel of wealth from the still-gentrifying neighborhood where Jake and his family have moved.

For years, Leonor has been renting the storefront from Max for a fraction of its market value. When Brian finally does get to talk with her, he presents her with a new lease, tripling the rent. She coldly tells him she'll show it to her lawyer (Alfred Molina appears as an old friend who gives her legal advice), but leaves him hanging for a response. Kathy's attempt to intervene, patronizingly telling Leonor that she's skilled in conflict resolution, achieves nothing.

What makes this feud absorbing is the writers' refusal to vilify anyone. Neither Brian nor Kathy feel good about forcing Leonor into a financially untenable situation, but the reality is that they can't afford just to forego the extra income. (And Audrey isn't inclined to let them.) For her part, Leonor is not beyond striking some low blows. At first, she tries to explain the closeness of her friendship with Max, and the reasons he ignored the rising rental market and kept her as a tenant. When that doesn't work, she shares some harsh judgments Max made about Brian, reminding him how infrequently they visited.

Naturally, the clash impacts the boys' friendship. Jake and Tony at first are aware only of the friction, not the facts, so they make a pact to stop talking to their respective parents until they sort it out. Only once the conflict has reached boiling point do they learn what's going on. This prompts a tearful entreaty from Jake, played by Taplitz with lacerating rawness.

In subtle ways that will be open to interpretation, Sachs seems to hint that Jake's feelings for Tony may go deeper than simple friendship, whether or not he's aware of it. In one transfixing scene in which the boys go to a kids' dance party, Jake sits on the sidelines watching as Tony snakes across the dance floor to make a move on a pretty girl from his acting class. Whether or not an element of desire is intended, the magnetic vitality of the boys' bond is a joy to watch. There are countless films about the intensity of young female friendship, but the male equivalent is more often played for laughs or awkwardness.

The performances are impeccable. Sachs is a master of expressive understatement, and that applies both to the young actors playing the boys — there's not a false moment from either of them — and to the adults.

Barbieri makes Tony a natural charmer who can crack wise in Brooklynese but also has sensitive depths, and Taplitz shows extraordinary emotional range, nowhere more so than in an affecting rapprochement between Jake and his father, once the drama has been played out.

The very fine work of Kinnear and Ehle helps makes this an uncommonly perceptive film about the tricky interaction between parents and children. Of the two, Kinnear's role has the most meat. Brian's shortcomings as a breadwinner seem subconsciously to inform his position in the tenancy dispute, and his familiarity with the rejections of a struggling actor makes him too apprehensive to give Jake the encouragement he needs. Finally, there's Garcia, a revelation in the Chilean film Gloria, who gives Leonor formidable strength of character. The three main adult characters all have their imperfections, but in Little Men, that never precludes empathy.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: Buffalo 8, in association with Parts & Labor, Raptor Films, Water’s End Productions, RT Features
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina Garcia, Michael Barbieri, Theo Taplitz, Talia Balsam, Maliq Johnson, Anthony Angelo Flamminio, Madison Wright, Mauricio Bustamante, John Procaccino, Alfred Molina

Director: Ira Sachs
Screenwriters: Mauricio Zacharias, Ira Sachs
Producers: Lucas Joaquin, Ira Sachs, Christos V, Konstantakopoulos, Jim Lande, L.A. Teodosio

Executive producers: Tom Dolby, Dom Genest, Matthew Helderman, Daniella Kahane, Lars Knudsen, David Kyle, Sophia Mas, Melissa Pinsly, Blythe Robertson, Lourenco Sant'Anna, Hugh Schulze, Luke Taylor, Rodrigo Texeira, Jay Van Hoy, Franklin Zitter
Director of photography: Oscar Duran

Production designer: Alexandra Schaller
Costume designer: Eden Miller

Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Editors: Mollie Goldstein, Affonso Goncalves

Casting: Avy Kaufman
Sales: WME, Mongrel International

Not rated, 85 minutes.

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