LITTLE MEN (2016)
Director: Ira Sachs
Cast: Theo Taplitz, Greg Kinnear, Michael Barbieri, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina García, Alfred Molina, Talia Balsam
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements, smoking and some language)
Running Time: 1:25
Release Date: 8/5/16 (limited); 9/2/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 2, 2016
"One of the hardest things to realize when you're a kid," the father tells his son and the boy's best friend, "is that your parents are people, too." That's a two-way street, and maybe a lot of the conflict in Little Men could have been avoided if the parents had thought of their sons as people, as well.
Then again, the sons do avoid talking to their parents once they realize something is amiss, and such an approach to conflict kind of confirms the father's argument. Then yet again, the parents don't do much better with each other, since there's a lot that could have been avoided, if not for the fact that they seem to be giving each other the silent treatment, too. Maybe the kids here are more like adults than the parents have the ability to realize, and maybe it doesn't matter whether or not the kids look at their parents as "people too" if neither kids nor parents can recognize that sometimes adults act like children.
The point is that no one is really right and no one is actually wrong in the scenario set up by the screenplay by director Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias. Simultaneously, all of these people are right and wrong for a variety of reasons.
What's vital is that Sachs and Zacharias don't take sides, and they're more than willing to paint these characters in such a way that neither side seems like the correct one. We can empathize with these people, because none of us is ever convinced that we might be the childish bad guy or the stubborn holdout or the inattentive neighbor in a given situation. None of us is ever fully right or completely wrong in an argument, because the person on the other side of it is at least partially right and a bit wrong, too.
The central problem here, as it is in almost every minor and major human conflict in history, is one of communication—both an inability to have a genuine one that sincerely takes the other side's position into account and, on more than one occasion, a complete lack of it. One of the more pleasant ironies of the film is how well Sachs and Zacharias communicate these characters, who are unable or unwilling to really communicate with each other, to us within a short period of time.
At the heart of this story is the sudden friendship (Is there any other kind in childhood?) between Jake (newcomer Theo Taplitz, in an incredibly specified performance of a very particular boy) and Tony (newcomer Michael Barbieri, who has such a natural way in his performance that it doesn't even seem like one). They meet when Jake arrives at his recently deceased grandfather's apartment in Brooklyn to attend a funeral reception for the grandfather's friends and relatives.
The communication problems begin even before then, though. Jake learns that his grandfather has died when he receives a phone call from one of the grandfather's friends who wants information about the arrangements. For Jake and Tony, though, the communication barrier erodes quickly. Tony admits that he doesn't know what to say to someone who has suffered a loss, so Jake says he thinks you're supposed to say, "I'm sorry for your loss."
Shortly after, Jake's family has moved into the Brooklyn apartment from Manhattan, and the pre-teen boys become fast friends. Despite their personality differences (Tony is naturally outgoing, and Jake is almost painfully introverted), they bond over video games and their creative impulses. Jake is an artist, and Tony wants to be an actor. They plan to go to the same arts high school next year.
Jake's father Brian (Greg Kinnear, who offers a fine performance as a man whose repeated feelings of near-defeat have made him both wise and timid), who only allows the grief over his father's passing to show when he's alone, is himself a struggling actor with dreams that outweigh either his talents or his willingness to put himself out there. His mother Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) is a psychoanalyst who spends her days talking to people who desperately need to talk. When she comes home, there doesn't seem to be much talk left in her.
Tony's mother Leonor (Paulina García) owns a dress shop in the storefront connected to the apartment building. She was friends with the grandfather, who kept the rent for the store incredibly low. Tony's father, the boy tells his friend, is a nurse with the U.N. who is regularly away. Tony thinks it's better that way, because his parents inevitability get into fights whenever they're both at home. The poor kid can't even dream of his parents being happy together. In a moving scene, Jake does the dreaming for his buddy.
The eventual conflict, which Brian and Kathy and Leonor equally dance around for the entirety of the first act (They always "need to talk" but never do), is over money—specifically Leonor's rent. Brian's sister Audrey (Talia Balsam) is pressuring him to get Leonor to sign a new contract, and Brian, who hasn't been paid for his work in years, needs the money to help support his family. Leonor insists that she cannot pay the increased rent.
This stalemate is so simple and so clearly defined that the film is essentially free to ignore it. Instead, it explores how something that is at once petty in the grand scheme of things and potentially devastating to both sides affects everyone who is either directly or indirectly involved.
The parents transfer their feud to their children's friendship: Sleep-overs that were once routine are now a hassle, and the polite way Brian and Leonor had with their sons' friend has turned to frustration. The kids don't know how to respond, because the only thing they know is that the fight is over "a business matter."
The result is a film that begins as a perceptive, engaging slice of life and slowly shows how easily slivers of that slice can be shorn until there is nothing left of it. Little Men is sensitive enough to avoid assigning blame to any of these characters for how that happens, but it's also astute enough to know that, to one degree or another, it is everyone's fault.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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