There is no phase of a parent-child relationship more fraught with peril, and for which either party is less prepared, than when the latter learns that the former is not infallible. LITTLE MEN portrays that milestone with intelligence and sensitivity for all concerned as two 13-year-olds become fast friends only to have their relationship threatened by the impasse between their parents over economics and gentrification.
Theo Taplitz, in a remarkably mature, nuanced feature film debut, plays Jake, an introverted thirteen-year-old with dreams of being an artist who moves with this family from Manhattan to Brooklyn when his father inherits an apartment and a storefront there. The store’s tenant, Leonor (Paulina Garcia), and Jake’s parents, Brian and Kathy (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle) become embroiled in a lease dispute, but not before Jake and Leonor’s extrovert of a son, Tony (Michael Barbieri in a brash yet vulnerable performance), become fast and firm friends for whom issues of money, class, and culture don’t apply. When the parents reach in impasse, and the dispute turns bitter, the young men attempt to take control of a situation over which, ultimately, they have no power.
Director/co-writer Ira Sachs achieves a wondrously natural feel to the film that embraces complexities and contradictions while refusing to create heroes or villains. Jake and Tony, two kids with little in common, bond over Tony’s compliment to Jake about a painting he’s done. It’s the sort of seemingly unremarkable moment that defines a friendship, but also speaks to the element of chance at work here, outside the strict hierarchies of school that would have kept them separated. They respond to their differences, find commonality, and the intensity of the friendship provides a Greek chorus of sorts to the adults, seeing the legal dispute from a perspective of innocence about the pressures of real life. It’s a distinction that the film draws again and again, with, for example, the unadulterated joy Tony finds in his acting classes, and the wistful acceptance Brian has about how his career on the stage has stalled, leaving Kathy, a psychotherapist, to be the breadwinner in the family.
As a counterpoint to him, Garcia gives an indelible performance as Leonor, a woman who has absorbed a lifetime of disappointment and transmuted it into a simmering anger that manifests into ferocious passive-aggressiveness. When she coolly stares down Brian or Kathy over the smoke of her cigarette, she is posturing from a conscious position of legal impotence, but also one of defiance that uses verbal punches of arguments delivered in measured tones of an exquisite delicacy and devastating effectiveness. She may not be able to afford the tripling of her rent demanded by Brian and his sister (Talia Balsam) and fellow heir, but she will refuse to cede what she perceives as her moral high ground, using anything to her advantage, including Brian’s uneasy relationship with his father. Against her, Brian and Kathy’s attempts to be humane are tested, as are their patience with a son and his friend who have sided with each other against their parents.
At one point in LITTLE MEN, a girl that Tony is crushing on tells him that she’s just not interested. She’s polite, empathetic even, but firm. It’s a small but salient moment that gets to the heart of the film. Truths, large and small, confront every character as the film progresses, until a reckoning between father and son of such tenderness, such compassion that will make or break this relationship for years to come. It’s a painful moment, but not brutal, like those every other character in the film will have to traverse, with no guarantee of how it will leave them.