LITTLE MEN. Greg Kinnear, Paulina Garcia, Jennifer Ehle, Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri, Talia Balsam, Alfred Molina. Directed by Ira Sachs. 85 minutes. Rated PG (Mild themes and coarse language).
‘Little Men’ is about how the relationships between parents will always trump those between their children. Parents hold the power in this dynamic because so many grown up decisions – moving house, moving school – simply overwrite anything that their kids feel. It’s facing up to this reality and accepting it that forces the two young protagonists in ‘Little Men’ to become men. They’re mature for their age when the film kicks off, but nothing stimulates development more than being confronted with your own helplessness. This whole story is performed and observed in Ira Sachs’ typically quiet manner, making for a very watchable and human film.
Jacob (Theo Taplitz) is a nice kid. When his classmates are horsing around, he’d rather draw elaborate scenes from his favourite fantasy franchise. Jacob is the only child of actor Brian (Greg Kinnear) and doctor Kathy (Jennifer Ehle). At the reception after his grandfather’s funeral, Jacob meets Tony (Michael Barbieri) and the pair hit it off. Tony is the son of Leonor (Paulina Garcia), who runs a struggling dress shop out of the Brooklyn storefront owned by Jacob’s grandfather. With his passing, the store is left to Brian and his sister Audrey (Talia Balsam), and they soon realise that due to her friendship with Brian’s father, Leonor has been paying a fraction of the rent that the shop is worth. They know that Brian’s father was very fond of Leonor and they’d like her to stay put, but they need her to start paying a more acceptable sum. She can’t possibly afford to meet their reasonable expectations, so something must give. The parents’ dispute spills over into their children’s friendship, with difficult consequences.
As this plays out between the adults, Jacob and Tony are forming a lovely friendship. They go to different middle schools, but they want to attend the same performing arts high school together, Jacob for his art, Tony for his acting. Their conversations are already remarkably grown up. Tony talks about his parents’ unusual relationship (they are still married although his father lives in Angola) with a very adult perceptiveness. Jacob is labelled ‘weird’ by his schoolmates for being a creative introvert. Both kids give brilliant performances, particularly in the slight modulations between how they interact with each other and with the adults.
The script from Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias unspools its difficult premise in a logical and unembellished fashion. Leonor’s position is untenable – the audience knows that. The amount she’s paying for her storefront borders on exploiting the kindness of an old man. Her response to her predicament is believable but also tough to sympathise with. Because Leonor’s a single mother in all but name but she’s knowingly putting Brian in a difficult bind, she’s both a heroine and the villain. It makes for an interesting exploration of morality and human relationships, and the resulting film moves past at a decent clip.
There’s no earth-shattering revelation to be had nor a feel-good ending, but ‘Little Men’ makes for mature, thoughtful viewing.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out December 8.