Attending The Sidewalk Film Festival this year was not only the chance to attend a spectacular event, but it was also a chance to catch up on great films away from the multiplex tentpole movies that are souring the American market. For two days I was able to enjoy a great many documentaries and independents of all shapes and sizes. I saw 8 films over the weekend and over the next couple of days I will be reviewing all of them starting today with Ira Sachs Little Men.
With is first two films, director Ira Sachs is building a nicely formed tapestry of how real estate can have an impact on personal relationships. Two years ago he made Love is Strange a beautifully emotional drama about the strains on Ben and George, a couple whose 40 year relationship is strained when George loses his job and they are forced to look for cheaper housing. Thankfully Sachs follow-up, Little Men, doesn’t feel like a watered-down retread. He and his co-screenwriter Maurico Zacharias do a beautiful job of sidestepping the trappings of a story in order to simply observe human beings and how they relate to one another in a difficult situation.
Taking place not only in Brooklyn but very much of Brooklyn, Little Men looks into the lives of two families who occupy the same building on the same block. The Jardine family is headed by Brian (Greg Kinnear) a struggling actor who has just inherited the building from his father. His career is propped up by a much more stable career held by his wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), a psychotherapist. In the same building is Lenore (Paulina Garcia) a Chilean dressmaker and longtime friend of Brian’s father who runs a decade’s-old dress shop that was apparently given a discount on the rent by the old man. Yet, now that the old man is gone a new contract comes up meaning that leniency on the rent is a thing of the past. Brian tries very hard (in a great scene) to explain this difficult situation to Lenore with a good bit of gentle reality. Her reaction is not helpful.
This is the template for the story but not the heart. The center of the film focuses on Brian and Kathy’s teenage son Jake (Theo Taplitz) who is an artist with designs on getting into LaGuardia High School of Music & Art. Moving into his grandfather’s old building he quickly makes friends with Antonio (Michael Barbieri) an outspoken extrovert who wants to be an actor and also has designs on going to LaGuardia High School. Their friendship is based on their common aspirations but their personalities.
The boys find themselves and their friendship stuck in the middle of a battle between their mutual parents. Brian had perhaps assumed that Lenore would understand that she had been given a break in her rent from his old man so many years but finds that she is far more resistance. Kathy tries too to reason with her but something is keeping her resolute about not changing anything. It is never spoken aloud but something in the class structure is keeping this situation from finding a resolution. Lenore seems to resent the Jardines from taking over the building and upending a situation that she has maintained for years. Brian had assumed that she would understand and Kathy tries to work it out on an emotional ground. He’s a man who has been privileged all his life but now finds himself in a situation that he can’t work out. His career is stumbling and he’s embarrassed that his wife is their support.
Stuck in the middle are Jake and Antonio who find that their parents casually limiting their time together because of their situation. They are the quiet sideline to their parent’s problems and what happens to their friendship is not handled in a big emotional scene, but a quiet life-goes-on scenario that you almost want to applaud.
This movie is special because it deals with characters on a human level. Everyone is driven by history and by personality. This is a very dialogue driven film and Sachs avoids the trappings of big dramatic scenes. Instead the dialogue is woven together by quiet emotions, a lot of scenes of people going about their days lives and often just pondering. That’s more powerful than a lot of bellowing.
The performances where are allowed to breathe. There’s time to get to know each individual and so when the big resolutions come it feels more palatable. I loved all of these people but especially Pauline Garcia as Lenore, who gives one of the best performances of the year. Lenore is a woman of quiet, stubborn resolve that we sense has been fighting all her life. She smokes cigarettes constantly with the smoke billowing from her mouth like a dragon and she smashes them out like she’s putting down punctuation. Her anger at her impending eviction is rational and even reasonable; she’s fighting for her home. Yet, despite her unyielding nature she’s not a villain. Watch the film, listen to her talk about her history, listen to her carefully chosen words and ask what you would do in her situation.
Little Men is a beautifully written, beautifully acted film that might be thrown out as a “coming-of-age” movie. It’s so much more than that. Yes, the kids are 13, just as the age between childhood wonder and teenage cynicism, but the movie is much smarter about their situation and their friendship. They are standing over the craggy cliffs of adulthood watching the grow-up pillars of their lives create a rift in their friendship but are unable to do anything about it. Where Jake and Antonio’s friendship ends up leads to one of the most bittersweet ending that I can remember, an affirmation of the power of childhood friends and the realities of life that threaten to pull it apart.