Idealistic youth collides with flawed adulthood in somber 'Little Men'
Posted September 5, 2016
“LITTLE MEN” — 3 stars — Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri, Paulina Garcia; PG (thematic elements, smoking and some language); Broadway
There are no villains in “Little Men,” and there aren’t any heroes, either. There are just people. Director Ira Sachs’ new film is a sobering portrait of what happens when the innocence of youth first comes into contact with the flawed reality of adulthood.
The “little men” in question are Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) and Tony Calvelli (Michael Barbieri). Jake’s family moves from Manhattan into an inherited home in a revitalized Brooklyn neighborhood after the death of his grandfather. Jake’s mother Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) is a psychotherapist and the family breadwinner, allowing his father Brian (Greg Kinnear) to pursue his idealistic dream of being an actor. Jake is also leaning toward the arts and compiling a portfolio of paintings that will get him into a prominent Manhattan art school.
Tony is the son of the dressmaker who runs the store downstairs from the Jardine family home and has aspirations to become an actor himself. His mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia) has run the store for years and was a close friend to Jake’s grandfather.
Tony is a tough and outgoing kid, and as he takes Jake under his wing, he helps the more withdrawn boy come out of his shell a little. But as the boys become close, tensions rise between their parents. Brian needs Leonor to agree to a new lease with a higher rent, but even though he tries to keep the numbers under the current rates in their gentrified neighborhood, Leonor still can’t afford the increase and resents Brian for even suggesting it.
Things go from bad to worse, and eventually eviction is on the table. Leonor lashes out at Brian, calling out his manhood. Brian lashes out at Tony in a moment of weakness. Tony and Jake decide to give their parents the silent treatment to teach them a lesson. There are no villains, but everyone betrays a little villainy when backed into a corner.
The tone of Sachs’ film never rises above somber, and the drama is never heightened for the sake of the medium. “Little Men” feels honest and real. There is no side to cheer for and no one to really cheer against. “Little Men” just feels like the way life goes sometimes.
Garcia has a crafty way of playing Leonor as both an antagonist and a victim at the same time. Leonor had a closer relationship to Brian’s father than he ever had and uses that advantage mercilessly. Kinnear’s Brian is well aware of his weaknesses, vulnerable to his own emasculated position and struggling to do the right thing and try to keep the peace at the same time.
But Taplitz’s Jake is “Little Men’s” sad, broken-hearted conscience, trying to find a solution to an adult problem through the limited means of a naïve child. When Jake desperately makes his case for compromise to his parents and Leonor, the film cracks wide open in a scene that highlights some of the young actor’s best work.
Featured at Sundance earlier this year, “Little Men” is the flip side of so many great coming-of-age films that bring their young protagonists into an awakened state via a rocky journey. Sometimes maturity and perspective comes at a cost that doesn’t deliver a happy ending.
“Little Men” is rated PG for thematic elements, smoking and some language; running time: 85 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.