Film Review – Little Men (2016)
“Know when to insist and when to stop…(when) to push themselves and relax,” a father tries to advise his son, a budding artist, on realizing the balance between artistic talent and an artistic career. Ira Sachs‘s latest film, Little Men, is full of people struggling with their dreams as well as their unique realizations of how far they can take those dreams on natural ability alone. It is a sobering look at freedom and creativity, neighborhoods and borders, and what fathers leave behind.
Jake (Theo Taplitz) draws constantly, whether it be in the midst of a chaotic middle-school classroom or a strobe-lit school dance. He is obsessed with characters from the Percy Jackson young-adult fantasy series by Rick Riordan, about a preteen boy who discovers he is the son of Poseidon and thus a demigod. Jake’s dad, Brian (Greg Kinnear) is a struggling New York actor, and his mom, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) is a successful psychotherapist. Kathy has paid the bills for years so Brian can continue to act, though his projects are now mostly off-Broadway and non-profit. When Brian’s father dies, the family moves from Manhattan into his apartment in Brooklyn, which is more spacious and affordable.
The apartment is over a dress shop run by Leonor, a Chilean immigrant, whose son, Tony (Michael Barbieri) is Jake’s age. It is clear from the start that Leonor was very close to Brian’s late father, Max, and gently asserts this connection through her words and actions. As her landlord, Max had charged her the same low rent for eight years, and she expects it to remain the same now that Brian has taken over. In his childhood home, Brian behaves as if the space is a circle he still hasn’t broken through, as there are obviously people around more comfortable and familiar with its rooms than he is. There is a disconnect between who his father was and how aware he was of his father’s life, especially in the later years, and being around Leonor only makes that gap more vivid.
Around women, Brian conforms to whatever is left of the space they share: whether it be his female costars on stage, his wife at the dinner table, or his new tenant in her shop. He wants the woman to structure and steer the interaction so he can react from there. His sister, Audrey (Talia Balsam), sees the profitability in the shop if they steeply raised the rent with a new contract, as the neighborhood is becoming more gentrified and more people with money are moving in. Since Brian got the apartment, Audrey wants the shop – but she wants Brian to do the confrontation with Leonor, something he clearly isn’t good at or eager to do.
As the adults are embroiled in their troubles, Jake and Tony have become fast friends. As Jake toils away at his drawings, Tony longs to be a great actor and attend La Guardia High School for Performing Arts, and takes classes after school. The exercise he does with his acting coach (Mauricio Bustamante) is frenetically charged, as cinematographer Oscar Duran’s camera steadily closes in as the older and younger man mirror each other’s shouts while establishing voice and persona. Tony is the extrovert of the two friends, more proactive when dealing with people from his mother to classmates to teachers (Leonor has to tell him to “stop insisting!”). Jake hangs back and observes the behavior of those around him, huddling around his paper and colored pencils like a turtle withdrawing into a shell while Tony musters the courage to enter the dance floor or talk to girls. Together, the boys explore the borough – Tony on a scooter, Jake on rollerblades (are those a thing again?) – with all the confidence and joy of young souls with the world at their feet.
When the boys talk about their fathers, there is that Percy Jackson hopefulness that something fantastic might be hidden in their bloodline, below the reality of what they see when the men are around. Tony’s dad is a UN nurse in Africa and rarely comes home, but his stories of exotic places and animals are the stuff of Tony’s dreams of his father’s chivalry and heroism on that magical day when he and Leonor might travel to see him. Jake knows that his father hasn’t had a substantial job in a long while, and his dad’s orders and allowances to him are always met with a check that Mom said it was okay.
Leonor’s fight to save her livelihood may have been over before it began, but she kept insisting on keeping her dream alive, even hiring more help in the waning days. She asserts her place and presence in front of Brian and Kathy, reminding them of the life that existed before they came to the neighborhood, and she isn’t subtle about her feelings towards Brian and his manhood (watch the scenes where she insists Brian enter the shop before her, or when she lets Tony ring the Jardine’s door and speak to Brian and Jake first). When Brian finally speaks to Jake about his talent and getting into a prestigious performing-arts high school (the one Tony dreamed of attending), the holes in his argument are achingly apparent. He speaks of brains and discerning the validity of a dream, but he’s been coasting on a middling career for years due to the financial support of relatives. Brian never had to create anything organically, and so his multitudinous rejections are displayed like thorns on the crown he wears atop his head. Do Leonor and Tony get swallowed by the encroaching gentrification on their neighborhood, where kids like Jake come with an automatic advantage?
Late in the film, Jake is doing a school project with classmates (obviously he was accepted into La Guardia), and he spots Tony with a group of kids, all wearing the same red uniform shirts from his previous middle school. Tony is reacting to a painting and entertaining the group, while Jake hangs back from his group and is more observant. Sachs is not trying to say one boy will be more successful than the other, or that one is better, but you can see who will have to insist more in the world and who will have to realize his natural abilities.