Little Men

****

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Michael Barbieri and Theo Tapliz in Little Men - when 13-year-old Jake's grandfather dies, his family moves back into their old Brooklyn home. There, Jake befriends Tony, whose single Chilean mother runs the shop downstairs. As their friendship deepens, however, their families are driven apart by a battle over rent, and the boys respond with a vow of silence.
"The film could be called "old fashioned" but that is rarely a bad thing."

Little Men, like its titular duo, is at once slight and small and gentle and brash and introspective and perhaps clumsy, but also touching, warm, honest, strong. Seen at the 2016 Edinburgh Film Festival its tone and style were such that it could easily have been lost in a sea of variety. Straight from seat, blinking towards Leith sunshine, it felt too pale and interesting to compete with the press of screenings, but, yet, still, it is one of the few films of that festival that I find myself thinking of without prompt - not alone, in truth, but by far the must human, humane - at leisure, recalled, this may in fact benefit from a transferred nostalgia, of reminiscence of being a loud kid, a kid who draws, a kid like Tony or Jake.

Theo Taplitz is Jake, the artistic son of a psychotherapist and an actor, aiming for one of those artefacts of New York Education that other movies are already about. He himself a writer/director, shorts to his name. It's hard to know how to talk about the performances of young actors but suffice to say no note felt false, forced. Nor, indeed, for Michael Barbieri. He will become more famous, and shortly, as he is in both Steven King mythographic epic The Dark Tower and friendly neighbourhood reboot Spider-Man: Homecoming next year. Here, he is compelling - a sequence in an acting workshop might not in fact be acting, but it doesn't matter - it's a strong moment in something that feels almost documentary in its stillness. Subtlety abounds.

Copy picture

As, indeed, do great actors. Michael and Theo are the film - their characters' friendship, the intersection of their paths brought about by death and rent and ambition - but they are acting in great company. Jennifer Ehle, Paulina Garcia, the boys' mothers, pulled together by that friendship in a relationship complicated by dynamics above and beyond their children. Greg Kinnear as Jake's actor dad, role model to young Jake, landlord to Jake's mother's shop. Alfred Molina appears in a few scenes, unheralded, almost unparalleled, but not unwarranted.

From its opening credits with a touch of MS Paint to a scale of drama that extends as far as "thinking about high school" and "moving house" and wandering around topics like the definition of family and all with the benefit of excellent performances, the film could be called "old fashioned" but that is rarely a bad thing - it speaks to that sense of nostalgia, of a fondness that inflects the film and which the picture deserves.

The "neighbourhood is changing", but some things remain the same. Ira Sachs' direction is minimal - this is not a flashy film - all the strength is in performance, and these are not children or animals - little men, yes, big beasts of the acting world, but creating a space in a film for that kind of subtlety is still difficult. This feels real, even in the inflationary gentrificationary surreality of New York's New York. He also co-writes with Mauricio Zacharias (who worked with Molina on Love Is Strange), and the delicacies displayed by previous works are well in evidence here.

Little Men is an almost archetypal art-house film - when the cast of characters includes an actor on a New York stage this is almost inevitably the case - and that is fine. There is an audience for these things, and they will not be disappointed.

Reviewed on: 22 Sep 2016
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Caught up in a family feud over rent, two boys respond with a vow of silence.
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Director: Ira Sachs

Writer: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias

Starring: Greg Kinnear, Paulina García, Jennifer Ehle, Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri, Talia Balsam, David Krumholtz, Alfred Molina, Clare Foley, Andy Karl, Yolonda Ross, Stella Schnabel, Arthur J. Nascarella, Elia Monte-Brown, Johnny Serret

Year: 2016

Runtime: 85 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US, Greece


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