Friday, 30 September 2016

Little Men

A bittersweet and beguiling look at how gentrification can change everything

Written by Jason Solomons

Some films feel a lot like life, except they’re over in 90 minutes. Ira Sachs’s Little Men is one such movie, a gentle gem from the heart of New York, a film about modern life in which characters and themes drift up against each other, creating just enough friction for sparks to fly.

I’m a sucker for films about how we live in cities, be they set in London, Bombay, LA or Taipei. We’re so ruled by property and economics, and New Yorkers, like Londoners, have been feeling the pressures keenly as gentrification sweeps changes through old, tight-knit neighbourhoods.

Such alterations don’t happen overnight but they can be remarkably sudden and devastating, and that’s what Little Men captures so deftly, so emotionally.

Greg Kinnear is perfect for this kind of film, with his puppy-dog apology face. Here he’s Brian, an off-broadway actor, married to Jennifer Ehle’s Kathy, a kindly psychotherapist. When Brian’s father dies, the couple and their awkward 13-year-old son Jake quit their cramped Manhattan apartment to move back into Brian’s childhood home in Brooklyn, which his father has now bequeathed him. You know – for the extra space, the garden and to be rent-free. Film-Jul17-JasonSolomons-176

The house, however, comes with a sitting tenant, Leonor (Paulina Garcia), a Chilean seamstress who’s had her dress shop on the ground floor for years and who clearly had a close and caring relationship with her deceased landlord. It turns out, with his flaky head for business (which Brian has also inherited), Brian’s father hadn’t increased the shop rent in decades.

Of course, Brooklyn is now booming and trendy, and Brian, urged by his more upwardly mobile sister, knows they should be getting five times more out of Leonor. With mounting dread, he realises a meeting is needed, something Leonor is keen to avoid, although she can hardly claim to be busy down in her fading little boutique.

It’s a dilemma, a face-off of bourgeois discomfort, which the characters dance and smile around for quite some while. It’s made all the trickier by the fact that, meanwhile, Jake is being introduced to the new neighbourhood by his new best friend tony, Leonor’s son.

Leonor clearly has money worries, but so does Brian (who is appearing in a not-for-profit fringe production of Chekhov’s the seagull). I mean, everyone’s got money worries, right? That’s the whole point.

But, remember, the title of this wonderful piece is Little Men, so attention must shift to Jake and Tony, two fantastic performances by Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri, who are actually the only characters who don’t have money problems, because they’re only 13. However, they are already worrying about their futures – Jake wants to go to art school and Tony (already a pocket- sized pacino) wants to be an actor.

One of the film’s best moments – indeed one of the best scenes of the year – follows Tony into his acting workshop where he does an improv stand-off exercise with his teacher. It is dynamite to watch and we soon realise this is a confrontation none of the adults are having in quite the same manner back in the real world.

The film’s drama – if one can call such subtly observational work a drama – plays out on the relationship between the two boys, the city and the minutiae of life working divisions of money, class and, yes, even race on the friendship of these two innocents, the way raindrops eventually make fissures in a rock.

Little Men is funny and warm yet profound and tinged with regret. I loved it, and I know you will too, because as its scenes and moments slide along, you recognise everything.

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