Near the midpoint of Ira Sachs’s Little Men, in the brief, blissful interlude before the world forces his hand, 13-year-old Tony Calvelli (Michael Barbieri) puffs up his chest, juts out his neck, and raises his voice to his teacher. An aspiring actor, he approaches the exercise with precocious dramatic instincts, urged on by the instructor’s own screams, but as the performance proceeds, he can’t hide his exuberance, and flashes of his winsome, sidelong grin creep to the corners of his mouth. Sachs’s patience as a filmmaker resides in the belief that the watchful is the equal of the wise, so the camera lingers here a moment longer than it might. “The genesis of acting is seeing,” Tony’s teacher explains. “Observation. Understanding what makes behavior.”
In this sense, Little Men is a testament to Sachs’s sublime powers of observation, transforming the smallest blip on life’s radar, a childhood friendship, into a momentous occasion—the birth of the creative mind, the bloom of adolescence, the bearing of adulthood’s worst burdens. This is a film as fleeting as a summer afternoon, and as pregnant with possibilities.
When Tony, brash and impertinent, meets his sensitive new neighbor, Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz), their differences fade, or merge, until the two become inseparable, and much of Little Men is a precise and tender portrait of their relationship, buoyed by the actors’ sweet-tempered rapport. As Jake inks page after page with bright green skies and pink-haired figures, or Tony prepares a scene from an August Strindberg play for an audition, the two dreamers spend a serendipitous season in each other’s company, run through with the gossamer threads of platonic affection.
As written by Sachs and recent collaborator Mauricio Zacharias, the film suggests the strange brew of warmth and terseness that marks Tony and Jake’s metamorphosis into little men: After Tony gets into a fight at school, defending his association with Jake against a classmate’s lunchroom taunts, he brushes off his friend’s concern, as if to say, “No big deal, I’d expect the same from you.” Similarly, Sachs and cinematographer Óscar Durán suffuse the characters’ time together with a certain noble simplicity, underlining their mutual understanding in deft, graceful strokes. Little Men’s most poetic passages follow Jake and Tony’s jaunts through their fast-gentrifying neighborhood, gliding wordlessly along Brooklyn’s streets to the score’s hopeful twinkle. The world streams past, and changes before their eyes.
It’s this, in fact, that forms the crux of Little Men’s narrative—this inexorable evolution of people and place, time’s ruthless insistence that we adapt to new circumstances. The boys forge their bond when Jake’s father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), inherits the building in which Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina García), maintains a struggling dress shop, but a dispute between landlord and tenant soon threatens to be the friendship’s undoing. Facing pressure from his sister, Audrey (Talia Balsam), to raise Leonor’s rent, Brian and his wife, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), present Tony’s mother with terms she can’t afford to accept, and their acquaintanceship sours.
Matching Little Men’s unassuming aesthetic, this conflict emerges by increments, broached at a barbecue and deepened with each subsequent conversation—a slow boil of bitterness that recalls that terrible, frank phrase, “Good fences make good neighbors.” With the same subtle assurance that defines its depiction of Jake and Tony’s friendship, the film turns its attention to their parents’ recriminations, sent aloft as quiet salvos across the class divide; the Jardines’ privileged self-absorption bumps up against Leonor’s stiff resistance to being displaced. “You two ever think about anybody but yourselves?” Brian rages at the boys as the film reaches its climax, though of course he’s the thoughtless one, blind to the havoc he wreaks.
As one might expect of a film that features a scene from The Seagull, in which Brian stars as Trigorin, Little Men thus turns on the choices, as Chekhov’s Nina remarks, of “real, living characters,” with complications that are human in scale. Sachs’s clean, unmannered naturalism registers as the opposite of Brian’s fettered perspective, clear-eyed and empathic, and in spite of the film’s slimness he traces the social and economic borders that adults tend to maintain, even as their children, innocent, cross them.
Though its tone is gentle and its depiction of friendship is fond, Little Men isn’t so naïve to suggest that all of youth’s possibilities come to pass, and indeed its most striking image, of a glance across an unbridgeable distance, is a microcosm of the film as a whole. As Jake says to Brian of a few lost drawings, “the new ones are never going to be like the old ones,” and to those of us in the audience who’ve already grown up, the sentiment rings perhaps too true to swallow. He’s wise beyond his years.