Little Men reaches a dramatic peak in the evolution, or more suitably the “maturation” for director Ira Sachs, whose fondness for New York City is matched only by his fondness for its inhabitants. The first of his distinctly New York flavoured dramas was Keep the Lights On, an equal parts fascinating and irritating homoerotic drama about an artist and a lawyer trying to survive an unhealthy romance of drug-binged hangups and self-destructive clinginess. Deciding this time to forego the fundamental LGBT romance in past films, Ira Sachs focuses his drama Little Men again in the “Big Apple”, this time on two families residing near one another and, more importantly, the families’ two sons who immediately connect through passions and dreams but are doomed to branch apart in the face of their families’ financial instabilities.
The film opens with a funeral reminding me of a joke by Louis C.K. where he says, “What happens after you die? Lots of things happen after you die, they just don’t involve you.” It’s true for the Jardines, an irregular but humble, loving and honest family. The father, Brian Jardine (Greg Kinnear), is a stage actor whose career seems to have stagnated. His wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), affable and supportive, is a nurse and the family’s only financial benefactor. Their son Jake (Theo Taplitz), a sketch artist, is timid but talented, perceptive and unlike any of the other kids at his school. After Brian’s father dies, the family inherits the man’s two-story building where its tenants run a dress shop on the first floor. They’re another sturdy unit, made up of a single mother, Leonor (Paulina García), and her son Tony (Michael Barbieri) who talks with a thick Brooklyn accent and a big city swagger.
Little Men is fleeting and generously introspective in its one hour and twenty-five minutes. The conflict that arises between two families is, like most problems of the lower middle class, monetary. Leonor is egregiously in debt and cannot afford to pay for the rent that Brian’s father had graciously lowered for her. It’s an uncomfortable situation and on Brian’s part, borderline hypocritical. It’s made even worse when Jake and Tony hit it off and are used by their parents as proxies to their petty squabbles. The two boys are well-versed and intelligent, no doubt the title Little Men refers to the two of them. Films which are labelled “adult”, indie or big-budgeted, rarely invoke through its kids a type of reflective nuance. Their parents, smart as they are, are shown as barefaced realists and survivalists and the kids, if somewhat naïve, understand their situation and, if nothing else, possess enough forbearance to uphold their own values.
Jake and Tony are hopelessly and innocently idealistic but don’t see the world through rose-tinted glasses. They, like Sachs, cling to the hope that life, disappointing as it is, can transcend the dispiriting and impoverished reality it’s proving to be.
Social realism and family dynamic seem to be two things Ira Sachs keeps going back to, they’re universal and timely subjects and when combined, tragic. His characters exist and play out life on their own terms but at some point have to become subservient to the rules of the real-world. The parents if anything, are reasonable people forced to play out an ugly scenario. Sachs is fair, even when the conflict gets vicious he gives both sides of the fight equal weight. No one comes out unscathed, Brian is emasculated by his father even beyond the grave, Leonor’s solidarity as a steadfast single mother is toppled and the kids ultimately learn from Jake’s father that, and I paraphrase, “one of the most disappointing things about growing up is realizing that your parents are humans too.”
Something I made note of was even as Jake and Tony are highlighted on their many journeys through the five boroughs, the camera never places them centre frame—a wide shot shows the two on a subway left of the frame and an extra on the right, both on equal focus. To anyone watching, the extra can be described as insignificant or ornamental, but not to Sachs. This level playing field is telling, maybe even emblematic to the film. New York City is an ecosystem fraught with its own organisms; dreamers drawn to the city’s vivacity and opportunity, and prisoners trapped by economic servitude and blind optimism.