Similar to how director Ira Sachs‘ previous effort Love Is Strange commented on the increasing rate of renting in New York City, Little Men showcases how a simple financial squabble can become someone’s undoing.
A relationship-based drama that survives mainly on the simplistic but natural performances of its cast, Little Men focuses on young Jake (Theo Taplitz), an effeminate teenager whose outward lack of masculinity has made him an easy target for his peers. A saviour of sorts arrives in the form of macho Tony (Michael Barbieri), the son of a dressmaker (Paulina Garcia) who operates out of the building Jake’s father (Greg Kinnear) has recently acquired. Realising that Tony’s mother has been renting her space for a fraction of what she should be – something that came out of a deal she made with the building’s former owner, Jake’s late grandfather – Jake’s dad hopes to renegotiate a contract. Despite the best of intentions from both parties, a war wages between Jake and Tony’s parents, which essentially rips the two boys apart.
The film could very easily have overplayed this dramatic angle, and perhaps in a differently handled production Jake’s parents (including Jennifer Ehle as his psychotherapist mother) would be pegged as more villainous stereotypes, but Sachs does commendable work in presenting both sets of parents as figures that are simultaneously right and wrong in their efforts. Neither Jake’s mother or father want to place Tony’s mother in financial distress, but their own monetary woes means they have to be understandably selfish in their roles as building owners.
Though the story itself isn’t especially interesting, and at 85 minutes it’s the briskest of tales, it’s the performances Sachs has evoked from his cast that help make the film watchable. Kinnear, Ehle and Garcia are all great but it’s the young duo of Taplitz and Barbieri that own the film with their authentic turns. Despite drastic differences in their personalities, there’s an honesty to their relationship; the alluding homosexuality of Taplitz’s character is never a cause of concern for the more masculine Barbieri, an aspect that lends the film some topical weight.
Little Men feels more like a film that will find itself an audience on streaming services as opposed to the cinema run it has been limitedly granted. Its understated nature will likely play against it in finding a large crowd, but there’s wonderful performances to be experienced and a strong message for younger viewers that it just might be worth accessing for those seeking alternate entertainment this holiday season.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Little Men is in limited release in Australia from today.