MIFF Review: Little Men (USA, 2016) reaffirms Ira Sachs’ gift for understated human drama

Little Men begins with Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) sitting quietly amidst anarchic scenes in a teacher-less classroom. Later that day, home from school, he takes a call from an old friend of his grandfather who, assuming that Jake knows more than he does, clumsily inquires about arrangements for Jake’s grandfather’s funeral. The juxtaposition of these first two scenes hints at director Ira Sachs’ focus here on that betwixt and between state of being – early adolescence.

At 13 years old, Jake has left the childish antics of the classroom behind but has not yet been admitted to the halls of adulthood. He is still at an age where his parents, Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), control his video game intake and determine – by the exchange of pointed glances across the dinner table – that certain subjects are too complex for him to understand and thus should not be broached.

Following up 2014’s sublime Love is Strange, Sachs excels again with Little Men in capturing with delicacy and tenderness the quietly significant moments in a family’s life. With the passing of Max, Jake’s grandfather and Brian’s father, the Jardines decide to decamp Manhattan for the more generous expanses of Max’s Brooklyn apartment, primarily to take the strain off family finances. Initially resistant to the idea of the move, it throws Jake together with Tony (Michael Barbieri), the son of Leonora (Paulina García), who for many years has leased the shopfront situated beneath Max’s apartment at a very generous discount with Max’s blessing.

Tony and Jake become fast friends. On the surface, the two aren’t much alike. With his New York wise guy accent and a little swagger, Tony is much more outgoing than the introverted Jake. The boys are also from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. But they bond over a mutual interest in attending LaGuardia High School, a school focused on the visual and performing arts. And also by doing the things 13-year-old boys often like to do: playing video games, rollerblading, starting to talk about maybe one day talking to a girl or a boy that they like.

The pair’s friendship blossoms partly by dint of their lingering innocence; they are blissfully still unaffected by that paralysing adolescent concern about what others might think. However, it soon emerges that they will not be able to remain sheltered from the effects of the rising tensions between Leonora and Jake’s parents regarding the terms of the new lease for the shopfront occupied by Leonora.

If perhaps not quite as complete as Love is Strange due to a somewhat unsatisfying third act, Little Men reaffirms Sachs’ gift for understated human drama. His characters are human, perfectly imperfect. The performances from Taplitz and Barbieri are authentic, while Ehle, García and Kinnear are typically impressive. The naturalistic cinematography, particularly the use of soft-edged close-ups, places you in the world of the film. It also underscores the director’s affinity for New York. Even if, reading Little Men as an allegory, Sachs conveys a tangible sense of melancholy, not only with regards to the transition from childhood to adolescence, but also in relation to the changing face of the city.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Little Men screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival, where it was reviewed.

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