Following the death of his grandfather, 13-year-old Jake (Theo Taplitz) and his parents inherit a Brooklyn apartment and the annexed retail space downstairs. The shop is occupied by Leonor, a Chilean dressmaker whose charismatic son, Antonio (Michael Barbieri), immediately befriends Jake. While the bond between the boys strengthens and they become inseparable, financial matters cause a rift between their parents. At first the boys are oblivious to the growing tension, but their friendship is eventually affected.
Little Men offers no revelations, plot twists, nor an intricate narrative. There is no active attempt to move the audience, and many scenes are merely fly-on-the-wall insights into the boys’ daily activities, but somehow, with utter quietness and subtlety, the story awakens feelings. Emotions rush in unexpectedly, as does the realisation that the little dramas of everyday life are all the more moving for their familiar tone.
Director Ira Sachs does not single out tragedy as a stand-alone situation or a big dramatic event, but rather depicts it as a series of small disappointments interweaved into day-to-day situations, accompanied by subtle, sometimes repressed emotions. Utterly raw in its depiction of reality, the film captures awkwardness, uncomfortable conversations and passive-aggressive conflicts, leaving the unsaid lingering in the air as the natural consequences of trying to figure out life.
There is no attempt to draw the audience’s sympathies one way or the other: all the characters are believable in their humanity. Young actors Taplitz and Barbieri are superb as the sensitive Jake, who dreams of being an artist, and the confident Antonio, an aspiring actor. Together, they create a beautiful picture of contrasting personalities and backgrounds that can blend as harmoniously as can be – until outside forces intrude.
In its own subdued way, the movie deals with ethical issues, artistic struggle, class conflict and gentrification, but it is above all a coming-of-age tale. It depicts the first instance in which pre-teens truly acknowledge the world of adults and come to realise that their parents’ decisions can turn their world upside down.
At times, there are long shots that do not seem to advance the narrative, and the very soft ending can give the impression that the plot is unresolved. Little Men, however, is a character-driven film, and while it may not appear to be ambitious in its scope, the pathos it creates with a simple storyline and the way it validates every character’s perspective with an equal dose of sympathy, is a commendable achievement that elevates the audience’s level of appreciation, especially in hindsight.
Little Men is released in selected cinemas on 23rd September 2016.
Watch the trailer for Little Men here: