There’s an air of heartbreaking inevitability to Ira Sachs’ Little Men, a collision that cannot be avoided, despite the best intentions of everyone on screen. It’s a film about gentrification that casts no judgment on the landlords or the tenant and it cares not to lecture about the changing face of a Brooklyn neighborhood, however much it might mourn its transformation. As he demonstrated in his last effort, the gay marriage drama Love Is Strange, Sachs is an artist of boundless empathy, someone who doesn’t define the world in terms of heroes and villains, but a clash of unfortunate circumstances and contrary motives. There are insights on grief, inheritance, adolescence, and the complicated bonds of friendship and family, but it starts with a firm commitment to understanding people’s lives down to the smallest detail and trusting that a wellspring of themes and emotion will arise from there.
The “little men” in Little Men are Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Theo (Michael Barbieri), two 13-year-old boys who connect with an ease that eludes most adults — a little chatter over artwork, an invitation to play video games, and a friendship is born. The adults in their lives, however, don’t mingle so easily. Jake’s parents, Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), have inherited the Brooklyn building his recently deceased father left behind and the three are moving into the roomy apartment upstairs. It’s great news for Jake’s family, which is living mostly off his mom’s income while his dad pursues roles in non-profit theater, and it’s great news for the two boys, since Theo lives right downstairs.
As the boys’ friendship develops, an unavoidable conflict stirs between Jake’s parents and Theo’s single mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia), a seamstress who operates a modest dress shop on the building’s bottom floor. For years, Brian’s father had allowed Leonor to rent the space without a lease for a small fraction of market value. But between the family’s stretched budget and his sister Audrey’s (Talia Balsam) demands for a piece of the inheritance, they have to offer a lease that Leonor likely won’t be able to afford. Their negotiations grow so tense and unpleasant that it starts to affect Jake and Theo, who decide to protest by giving their parents the silent treatment.
There’s humor and poignancy in Jake and Theo’s show of solidarity, because it’s both a hilariously juvenile response and a touching assertion of a friendship that’s crushed by forces they cannot control. It’s a torment for their parents, too: Brian feels his inadequacy as a provider acutely, especially now that it’s been combined with grief over his father’s loss and guilt over not being able to extend the same generosity to Leonor. Gentrified neighborhoods are built on eviction notices, but Sachs isn’t inclined to tar Brian and Kathy as cruel, greedy landlords eager for Starbucks money. They need to do what’s best for their family, even if it ultimately means doing harm to another.
But Little Men belongs to Taplitz and Barbieri, who are either exceptionally good child actors, shrewdly cast and managed by Sachs, or a little bit of both. Jake and Theo don’t have much in common beyond an interest in art — Jake draws and paints, Theo takes an acting class — and their friendship runs against their natural places in the middle-school social order. Jake is an shy outcast, a magnet for bullies; Theo has charisma and swagger, and fits in with the jocks and popular kids. Jake is quietly grateful to have a friend like Theo, but mostly, they have an easy chemistry that neither of them overthink — and that Taplitz and Barbieri, to their immense credit, make utterly plausible.
Sachs never presses too hard for emotional effect, and there’s an ease with which he incorporates wonderful little slice-of-life episodes, like Theo doing a bravura acting exercise, into a drama that gradually comes to a head. Little Men has only one big dramatic scene, but it’s a shot to the heart, so piercing because Sachs was patient enough to define all his characters fully before unleashing it. A film as low-concept as Little Men stands to get lost in the slushpile of “character-driven indies” that spill out of Sundance every year and into New York City arthouses by the dozens, but Sachs is a special director. He conducts minor symphonies out of myriad grace notes.