‘Little Men,’ Looming Silences

little menThis week I got to speak about Ira Sach’s wonderful new film “Little Men,” a micro-indie (that doesn’t look like a micro-indie) focusing on the friendship blooming between two thirteen-year-old boys as their parents battle over a Brooklyn retail space. I gave the lecture to the wonderful Long Island cinema club where I sometimes speak and from whom I always learn a lot whenever I do. The group is comprised of cinephiles who are mostly retired and emigrants from Brooklyn themselves. Their perspectives about the entwinement of art and life and how time can change seemingly cut-and-dry issues have made me cry more than once. Suffice it to say, they really grasped this film. Here is the bulk of what I discussed. 

I want to say I was happy to come talk about this film tonight not only because I’m always happy to visit you lovely people, but because Ira Sachs is one of my favorite working American directors. I first discovered his work with 2005’s “40 Shades of Blue,” and we made brief contact when I listed that film as one of the best films of the Aughts for Salon.com. Since then, his work has only gotten better. Even his rare off notes—most prominently the lopsided noir “Married Life”—still offer many rich moments. There’s something profoundly European about his work—in the way he explores individuals’ progress in finely drawn milieus, in how he tackles grand themes through small, almost imperceptible gestures and flourishes.

That’s especially true in “Little Men,” whose chief topic is growing pains. The growing pains of its 13-year-old protagonists, the growing pains of the borough of Brooklyn, which is changing so much that many of the artists and immigrants who made it a desirable place to live are now being priced out. Here I should say I live about two blocks from where this film is shot—a friend owns the space where Leonore’s store is set—and that Sachs himself is a New York-based dad of two young kids. His husband is the painter Borris Torres, whose family moved to Brooklyn from Ecuador so he could attend a public art school and find his way. So it’s safe to say that Sachs knows the turf of his film very, very well. In interviews, he has said he likes to make films about families partly because the challenges of being a good parent and sibling are the essential challenges of being a good person.little parents

Ira has always said that he wanted to make a movie about young people to give them an introduction to a different kind of cinema than they’re finding in all those comic book movies. For that alone, I love him as well as this film.

But there are plenty of other reasons to adore this film. I love the performances. Greg Kinnear burrows into his normal cheesiness and excavate shades of despair that feel very authentic, and the always-terrific Fred Molina and Jennifer Ehle, whom you may remember from “Mansfield Park,” are as powerfully nuanced as we’ve come to expect them to be. I love the dialogue written by Sachs and his perpetual cowriter Mauricio Zacharias. I love the seamlessness of the technical details— from Spanish director of photography’s Óscar Durán’s impeccable framing to Dickon Hinchliffe’s vibrant (if occasionally bombastic) score to Mollie Goldstein’s unruffled editing. I love the gentle valentine this film writes to youth and to NYC itself—to the way that kids can be kids in here in a way they can’t manage anywhere else in this era of helicopter parenting, since they’re uniquely free to roam in packs and build worlds of their own, separate from restrictions around class, race and gender. I love how passionate these teens are—first-timers Theo Taplitz as Jake and Michael Barbieri as Tony are naturalistic and charismatic, especially Tony, who is both soulful and aggressive, which is really no small feat even for a grown-up actor. (He’s got a bit of Sal Mineo in him, doesn’t he?) Watching the boys’ friendship bloom as they play video games and rollerblade together, I found myself musing on the mystery of boyhood friendship. Even when it’s celibate there’s a beautiful passion to it at that age—the word bromance didn’t develop in a vacuum–and Ira Sachs captures it in his quintessentially understated way—stolen moments, freestyle conversations, jiggling limbs, meaningful silences.garcia

Those silences are especially powerful with all the grownups here. As usual, Sachs is careful not to paint anyone as unilaterally evil in this battle being waged over the garden-level retail space in this Brooklyn building. But in it he builds a pretty useful model of Brooklyn gentrification. Tony’s mother Leonare, played by the great Paulia Garcia, can be harsh and manipulative, but you understand how much she has to lose—not only her business location but possibly her business itself, her sole means for supporting herself and her son. The role was written for her and Sachs has said she was adamant that he not soft-pedal her character. In turn, the delicate balance between Jake’s parents’ Brian and Kathy seems to hinge on the income that the space can bring their family, since Kathy is tired of assuming the entire financial burden of her family.

The kids’ resulting speaking strike recalls the 1950s Japanese film “Good Morning,” which is probably no coincidence either, since Ira has said that he watched that movie when he was beginning to prepare to make this one. He also has said he was inspired by, believe it or not, Brian De Palma films.

I see the De Palma influence, I guess, in the chase scene and in the the way Brian’s play echoes the grief of Brian’s real sorrow. tonyDe Palma loves doubles and mirrors. But I also see the influence of Chekhov here, in the way nothing and everything happens, in the great stakes -ing in domestic tableaus, in how terrible despair lives side by side with simple joys and pleasures.

Certainly it can be no coincidence that this film ends in a museum, as this is a movie about two boys coming into their own not only as men but as artists, which is another dream that New York City can uniquely enable for young people even now. There’s a melancholy to this film—even a tragic quality–but it never dips into melodrama. Instead, we’re offered gentle truths about the human condition: the limits of compassion, the preciousness of friendship, the necessity of idealism. A colleague said: “This movie won’t change the world, but it does understand it.” I think this movie helps its audience understand it as well.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy