“Little Men” is a story about the personal fallout of gentrification, felt through its effect on two 13-year-olds whose parents have squared off on opposite sides of a real estate dispute.
When Leonor (Paulina García) – a Chilean seamstress who runs a struggling dress shop in rapidly transforming Brooklyn – is faced with a 300-percent rent increase from her new landlord, a cash-strapped actor named Brian (Greg Kinnear), the budding friendship between Leonor’s son, Tony (Michael Barbieri), and Brian’s son, Jake (Theo Taplitz), suffers devastating collateral damage. “Our parents are involved in a business matter, and it’s getting ugly,” Tony tells Jake, “so they’re taking it out on us.”
That’s the succinct description. Yet as accurate as it may be in communicating the plot of this bewitchingly oblique and bittersweet film by Ira Sachs and his co-writer Mauricio Zacharias (previous collaborators on “Love is Strange”), it fails to capture what “Little Men” is really about. The true action takes place around the edges of the story, where the raw, real emotions – anger, guilt, despair, love and betrayal – flare up.
Garcia’s portrayal is carefully controlled and calibrated, but at the white hot end of the spectrum. She’s passive-aggressive, with a vengeance. From an acting standpoint, the choice is risky, but highly convincing – not to mention highly affecting.
But as powerful as she is, the young actors who play Tony and Jake are even better. Barbieri is especially good, tapping into a surprising sweetness and intelligence that belies his character’s streetwise swagger and outer-borough accent. Taplitz has one memorable scene, after he’s abandoned his attempt to punish his father with the silent treatment for coming between him and his new best friend. In a tour de force, Jake’s emotions come erupting forth in a cascade of hot tears, apologizing and bargaining for things he’s too young to understand, and too naive to realize he’ll never get.
As much as we may want for Jake and Tony’s relationship – and love is not too strong a word for it – to weather the storm that their parents have stirred up, that would be the kind of happy ending that happens only in movies. With a firm grasp on the duality implicit in its title, “Little Men” is a story that’s neither tragic nor triumphal in the way it resolves itself, but rather one that’s sadly, even satisfyingly true.
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Michael Barbieri, Theo Taplitz, Paulina Garcia
Director: Ira Sachs
Length: 85 minutes
Rating: PG (mature thematic material, some strong language and smoking)
Chapel Hill: Chelsea.