This subtle movie about family, friendship and money is as enthralling as it is heartbreaking. Lucy Scholes reflects on a masterpiece about our modern times.

“You’re going to like this neighbourhood, it’s become a very bohemian area,” 13-year-old Tony Calvelli (played by Michael Barbieri) tells his soon-to-be new neighbour Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz).

Introverted and slightly awkward, Jake seems older than his years. But then again, so does Tony, what with his swagger, confidence and ‘welcome to the hood’ pitch. These are the “little men” of director and writer Ira Sachs’s impressive new film.

Following Jake’s grandfather’s death, he and his parents move from their tiny overpriced Manhattan apartment back into the family home in Brooklyn. The floor below holds a spacious first-floor apartment and shop premises, currently occupied by Tony’s single-mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia), a Chilean dressmaker.

The retail space, it turns out, is worth a small fortune—at least five times what Leonor’s paying. Jake’s grandfather generously didn’t raise her rent once in nine years, despite the gentrification all around them. The Jardines, however, need the money.

Jake’s mother Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), a psychotherapist, supports the family while her husband Brian (Greg Kinnear) indulges in non-profit acting work. Leonora, meanwhile, simply doesn’t earn enough money to pay more rent. Feeling increasingly trapped, she attacks Brian’s insubstantial relationship with his father, accusing him of not being “man enough” to provide for his own family. He's another “little man”, only this time in the context of machismo and traditional family values.

little men film review
Michael Barbieri and Theo Taplitz "more often than not steal the show"

Here lies the tension in the film: old versus new. Sachs doesn’t make it easy for us to take sides. They might not be cash rich, but the Jardines’ entitlement shines like a beacon of white privilege.

There’s Brian’s pursuit of what his 'vocation' despite his obvious lack of success rather than knuckling down to earning a regular wage, and Kathy’s Mondays off—“I need a day a week to organize my life,” she explains to Lenora, the latter sat working at her sewing machine. What seems like a basic right to one woman is clearly an unheard of luxury for another.

Lenora’s increasing vitriolic attacks, although understandably driven by a toxic combination of fear and pride, cut to the bone. Each and every performance is flawless, Kinnear and Garcia shine in particular, but so too do newcomers Taplitz and Barbieri, who ably keep pace, more often than not stealing the show.

 

 

"Each and every performance is flawless"

 

 

For fans of Sachs’s work, there are obvious parallels to be drawn with his previous feature Love is Strange (2014), another tale of the emotional cost of not being able to make ends meet in a city of soaring rents. Sachs is able to comment on the bigger picture via the intimacy and precision of a studied portrait of a small community of individuals affected. The success of this particular approach thanks in no small part to the sympathy with which he’s able to observe multiple perspectives and juxtapositions.

In parallel to the worsening relations between landlord and tenant, Jake and Tony quickly become inseparable. Sachs switches effortlessly between the awkward loaded scenes between the adults, and the carefree existence of their children, thus showcasing two very different sides of the same city. Being an adult struggling to pay your rent is soul destroying, but being a kid out with your friends you see only a world of opportunity. That is until you’re forced to grow up and take sides.

The conclusion is inevitable but far from predictable, Sachs is too thoughtful and subtle a filmmaker to fob his audience off with anything less than heartbreaking naturalism. Although its message is a bleak one, Little Men is a film of rare perception and beauty.

 

Little Men opens in cinemas across the UK on Friday 23rd September

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