Personally, I prefer the smaller films, films that tell stories about humanity and its complexities. I feel that they make more impact than the overblown, big budgeted extravaganzas that we are faced with. Smaller films focus more on actual plot rather than special effects; they deal with people, places, and things on more realistic terms. Director Ira Sachs’ beautifully realized Little Men is a prime example of how to make an amazing film about people and their lives. It is also a tribute to the complex beauty of New York, and how it can bring out the best in human interaction.
The story centers on 13-year-old Jake (Theo Taplitz), who moves with his family from Manhattan to Brooklyn after the death of his grandfather. There, he strikes up a friendship with the outgoing Tony (Michael Barbieri), whose mother, Leonor (Paulina Garcia), owns the dress shop below Jake’s new home. Their bond gets tested when Jake’s parents, Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), ask Leonor to pay a bigger rent, something she can’t afford. This leads to a feud in which Jake and Tony are stuck in the middle, and they decide to silence themselves against the adults in defiance.
This is a realistic account of coming-of-age and youth under fire that many other films get incorrect. It is more real, considering the fact that Jake and Tony never really see each other again, even after they attend the same high school. The ending doesn’t sugarcoat the rather sad conclusions to many young friendships, where kids are forced to separate from each other and move on with their lives, sometimes against their own will. I think some films tend to forget that and cop out false hopes and unrealistic resolutions. Little Men ends how it should, more naturally.
Director Sachs’ amazing eye for humanity and observation, especially in New York, is fully realized, and he has a wonderful cast to extend the story. The performances of the adult actors, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Elhe, and Paulina Garcia, are stunning and perfectly pitched, but I think the performances of the two younger leads, newcomers Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri, are so unselfconscious and natural, that they obviously steal the film away from everyone else. Their chemistry is very potent and the mannerisms are more frank than those of other young actors. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they go on to have great film careers after this.
The DVD special features include The Making of Little Men; Casting Session: “Tony” (Michael Barbieri); Casting Session: “Jake” (Theo Taplitz); the theatrical trailer, and trailers for Lo and Beyond, and The Wave. Personally, this would have made a great Criterion release because the film is so astute, contemporary, and very well-acted.
Watching Little Men was one of the most profound cinematic experiences that I’ve had all year. I already love Sachs’ other films, and I’m definitely looking forward to what he comes up with next. He has that keen New York eye that evokes Sidney Lumet and Woody Allen.