New York City has rarely seemed as carefree and effervescent as it does in Ira Sachs’ Little Men, when two teenage boys skate down the sidewalk, not speaking but joined in silent kinship. In a film otherwise absent of a musical soundtrack, Sachs sets these tracking shots to wistful, summery compositions, emphasising their unique function within the narrative. Away from adults, and their rules and disputes, the boys can enjoy the city and the opportunities it offers them, wheeling forward towards adulthood without its cruelty impinging on them as it does throughout the film.
A heavy sense of regret hangs over Little Men, but Sachs doesn’t allow things to become sodden with pessimism or histrionic drama. Instead, the sad inevitability of the dispute between the boys’ parents is painted in a bittersweet light. There are no villains, because Sachs’ humanist approach doesn’t allow for such simplistic characterisations; everyone here is a good person trapped by society’s ills. Alongside his regular co-writer Mauricio Zacharias, Sachs has become expert at crafting stories that are epic in their emotional intimacy, telling multitudes through reserved character drama. Where Keep the Lights On was painful and embittered, Love Is Strange saw the pair’s acute sensibility turn more tender and evocative, and that’s a mood that only deepens in complexity for Little Men.
When artistic, solitary Jake’s (Theo Taplitz) family move to the Brooklyn house left empty after his grandfather’s death, he makes an unexpected friend in Tony (Michael Barbieri), the son of the woman who rents the shop downstairs to run her dressmaking business. But when Jake’s father (Greg Kinnear) and his mercurial sister (Talia Balsam) tell Leonor (Paulina Garcia) that they have no choice but to raise her very generous rent, the boys’ friendship is threatened by their parents’ increasingly fractious dispute.
The slight awkwardness of the performances by Taplitz and Barbieri ironically only adds to the freshness and naturalism of the film, with their interactions contrasted with the cautious, performative conversations between the adults. Without ever overstating anything, Sachs makes the shift between childhood and adulthood clear in how much more pained and difficult things become, and how secrecy in the children – hints of Jake’s burgeoning crush on his friend remain gently unspoken – is much more innocent and precious than the selfish concerns of the adult world.
Which is not to say that either half of the characters are less engaging than the others. Sachs expertly positions his audience in a place to wistfully remember their own innocence lost, and sympathise with all parties in the unwinnable dispute, thanks in large part to the measured performances by Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle as his wife, and particularly the anguished bite of Chilean heavyweight Garcia, constantly sizzling like crumbled embers, a woman fighting to keep hold of her livelihood in the face of a world that has outsized her.
From Leonor’s glower down to the boys’ tested friendship, Sachs exquisitely nails emotional unrest on such a personable level that Little Men continues to linger, even though it comes without grand scenes of shouting (unless you count the riotous scene improv scene between Tony and his acting coach) or shocking narrative twists to sear in into the memory. Little Men feels natural, honest, and almost daring in how delicately and unassumingly it sits next to its audience, speaking to them almost conversationally, ultimately acting as reminder and revelation, probing the past, questioning the present and preparing for the uncertain future that we all must live through.
Little Men is in cinemas from Friday 23 September. Images courtesy Untitled Communications.