Little Men

December 9, 2016
Michael Barbieri and Theo Taplitz in Little Men (2016
Michael Barbieri and Theo Taplitz in Little Men (2016

This time of year is the Sargasso Sea of new releases. The big films have already been reviewed and there is very little to see until Boxing Day, when one is confronted with an embarrassment of choices.

In the absence of a Big Film, I’m obliged to write about a little one. Everything is of modest scale in Ira Sachs’s Little Men, from the title to the running time, a mere 85 minutes. The reported budget was US$2 million, although it’s hard to see what it was spent on.

The story is equally slender. When Brian Jardine’s father dies, he and his family leave their Manhattan apartment and go to live in his childhood home in Brooklyn. It’s a wrench for 13-year-old Jake, but he soon makes friends with Tony, the son of Leonor, who has the dress shop next door. Brian and his sister, Audrey, have inherited the ownership of this property too, and they want to raise the rent. Leonor, who was a close friend of Brian’s father, says she can’t afford an increase. The dispute over the lease puts pressure on Jake and Tony’s friendship.

That’s it. The interest of the film comes from a suite of closely observed family dynamics – the small tensions and pressures within the Jardine clan, and between them and Leonor. The story centres on Jake, played by newcomer, Theo Taplitz, who is shy, introverted and artistic. Tony, played by Michael Barbieri, is the opposite: brash, talkative and gregarious – completely at home in a “Bohemian” neighbourhood.

Greg Kinnear’s Brian is an actor by profession, but a second-rate one. He is currently appearing as Trigorin in a small company production of The Seagull. In Chekhov’s play Trigorin describes himself as “a limp dishrag”, a man without willpower, and this could apply equally well to Brian, a conflict-avoider who seems to have been bruised by his long-term lack of success.

For years the family has been supported by wife and mother, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), who works as a doctor. Although there is no overt conflict between Brian and Kathy, there’s a constant sense that his masculine pride has been damaged by this dependency. In the new Trumpian world he’d be defined as a loser.

Leonor, played by legendary Chilean actress, Paulina García, is a tougher proposition. She is willing to force Brian’s hand, firstly by ignoring his request for her to look at a new lease, secondly by shaming him as a poor son to his father and a failed bread-winner. In her estimation she was his father’s real family, and should be allowed to continue with the shop on the same terms. Although Brian, as landlord, has the upper hand, Leonor takes a more aggressive approach.

Meanwhile Jake and Tony have become inseparable companions, fantasising about applying to LaGuardia High School, which specialises in music, art and the performing arts. Tony wants to be an actor and invites Jake along to his lessons. Tony also has a developing interest in girls but Jake is devoted only to his art. With his long hair and lack of interest in sport, he’s markedly less masculine than the other boys.

Those notorious dilemmas-of-masculinity that surfaced as a talking point some time in the 1980s, provide a subtext for this movie. The other issue is the implicit conflict between the white, middle-class Jardines and their South American tenant. In the hierarchies of privilege that now dominate American universities, the Jardines would far outrank Leonor, but that’s not how they feel. Surviving on Kathy’s salary and struggling to make ends meet, they are part of America’s growing legion of the downwardly mobile petit bourgeoisie.

Ultimately it’s money that is causing all the problems. The spiralling price of real estate as a poor Brooklyn neighbourhood becomes gentrified means that the Jardines are charging Leonor rent at a fraction of the current market value. Maudlin Brian might have allowed this arrangement to drag on, but not Audrey (Talia Balsam), his unsentimental sister, who wants her fair share of the inheritance.

Eventually all the Jardines, apart from Jake, begin to feel they are being cheated out of income that is rightfully theirs. For Leonor it is a matter of honour. She believes a sacred bond was formed between her and Brian’s father that should now be respected by his ungrateful offspring. She also recognises that Brian is an empathic type who wants to conduct his business negotiations in a way that is fair to both parties. When she takes this sense of fairness as a weakness, it begs the question by which so many businessmen justify their own behaviour: “When you get treated like this, why should you give a damn about others?”

In the United States today that is a really big question, with fairness and decency being the first casualties of rising inequality and social stratification. In this particular instance the intense friendship between Jake and Tony stands as an irrational outpost in the growing rift between their respective parents. It’s a bond that is being unravelled by the tensions of the adult world. With each strand that disappears, so goes an important part of their childhood.

Little Men
Directed by Ira Sachs
Written by Ira Sachs & Mauricio Zacharias
Starring Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina García, Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri, Alfred Molina, Talia Balsam
USA/Greece, rated M, 85 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 11 December, 2016