Things change. That is a hoary sentiment, of course, obviously, and while writer/director Ira Sachs does not necessarily uncover any new insight about how Things Change in “Little Men”, he still evinces an effective, emotional reminder that the observation holds true. Sachs does this predominantly, though not exclusively, through the eyes of two thirteen year olds, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), who, as new neighbors in Brooklyn, become fast friends. That friendship, however, is requisitely tested when their parents become locked in a low-simmering business feud. If Jake and Tony are perched on the precipice of growing up and having to figure things out for themselves, the fate of their friendship is nevertheless removed from their own hands, a pained reminder that sometimes Things Change because Life Isn’t Fair.
Like so much in New York, the story of these little men turns on real estate, in this case a Brooklyn apartment that Jake moves into with his mother Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) and father Brian (Greg Kinnear) because they can no longer afford to live in Manhattan. The new place was left to them by Brian’s father, who has passed away as the film opens, and includes a dress shop in the ground space run by Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina Garcia). Brian’s father refused to raise Leonor’s rent, but Brian and Kathy cannot afford to follow suit. After all, Brian is an actor, cinematic shorthand for “poor”, and Kathy, a psycho-therapist, has been struggling to shoulder the full financial burden.
This real estate boondoggle evokes New York’s respective crises of rent and gentrification, though Sachs refrains from a deep dive into either issue, maintaining an intimate focus on the personal emotions that bubble up in this standoff over a new lease. Sachs does not take sides, eliciting sympathy for Leonor’s struggles even as he clearly explicates the reasons why Brian and Kathy have no choice. One scene finds Kathy politely, yet clearly, explaining to Leonor that paying a fair price for rent isn’t so much to ask.
While Brian’s feelings about his failures are made quite clear, and are matched by Kinnear’s weary performance where his movements, and even his unkempt hair, seem defined by an invisible weight above his head, Kathy, aside from that one aforementioned scene, is not allowed as much depth, the film’s single failure. “You should applaud your father for being adaptable,” she instructs Jake. “That’s what life is all about.” But Ehle’s performance lets doubt creep in about her own belief in this statement, and the script never follows up on that doubt. Garcia’s Leonor, on the other hand, is written as someone who cannot help but lash out at the inevitable, and if Garcia invites empathy, she also lobs a few verbal poison darts when called upon to do so with great acidity.
Rest assured no third act loophole conspicuously emerges to allow for the ending that everyone wants. No, it inexorably marches toward Leonor getting the boot, and if she gets the boot, Jake and Tony realize their friendship might collapse. This realization causes them to cut off communication with their parents, a wonderful rendering of how a kid’s mind works, how life’s most intractable dilemmas should be so easy to remedy because the right thing is so obvious. To that point, the movie’s most beautiful images are of the two boys traversing the city sidewalks, Tony aboard a scooter and Jake wearing rollerblades, flying along as music soars on the soundtrack, oblivious to the whole world around them, a gorgeous emblematic rendering of the self-contained world of children, a world that is gradually undone.
Admirably, the bond between Jake and Tony deals strictly in reality, how at their age geographical concerns can foster friendship as much as shared interests or attitudes. Both boys have artistic dreams, yearning for entry into a high school for the performing arts, but Tony, who dreams of being an actor, espouses a charismatic confidence. In one shot, where he bids a girl he likes goodbye, as he leans on a railing with a graffitied sign in the background, I’d swear, for a second, that he evokes a little Al Pacino.
Jake doesn’t have that swagger. A gifted, artist, he is more clammed up, still unsure of himself even as he quietly goes about figuring himself out. And with his effeminate features, and an air of peculiarity, he gets teased by others. In fact, Tony gets into a fight with another kid who picks on Jake, but this is never really the point. These two boys mostly stand above that kind of fray, and so does the screenplay, which refreshingly refuses to fall back on some kind of fatuous falling out between the two.
Though the rent crisis is front and center, as it has to be, Sachs’s screenplay delicately has the storyline cede the stage to the crisis that Jake and Tony’s friendship imperceptibly, almost unknowingly to them, inevitably reaches, where moving apart means having to move on. And that is the ultimate truth of “Little Men”, how a best friend for now is not always a best friend for life, and how that’s okay, and how even if Life Isn’t Fair, Life Goes On.