Little Men Review: The Complications of Young Friendship

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Ira Sachs’ follow up to the sensational Love is Strange is a tragically grown-up film about a very young friendship. Little Men boasts a simple elegance and authenticity in its two leads’ friendship, but it also brings the complexity of adult life into it. Small in scale but high in emotion, the film is a success, even if it doesn’t match Sachs’ previous effort.

The story follows Jake (Theo Taplitz), a timid teenage artist struggling to fit into the New York City public school system, as his family inherits and moves into his grandfather’s apartment after his death. The downstairs tenant is a homemade clothing store run by Leonor (Paulina Garcia), who Jake’s grandfather was letting slide on the rent. Leonor’s son Tony (Michael Barbieri) makes instant friends with Jake, even though they have opposite personalities. Antonio has a thick New York accent and plays sports with his friends while Jake draws in his room. But they do share an artistic side and a hopeful outlook on a future that’s better than the present.

As they go through pivotal childhood moments together (you know, girls, dances, video games), the conflict between their parents gets ever more complicated. Jake’s father (Greg Kinnear) is forced to push hard on Leonor to get her rent in, but she shared something truly special with his deceased father, making eviction a word no one really wants to say. The boys rebel in all the little ways they know how, not-so-blissfully unaware of the decision making that’s going into a legal skirmish that only gets uglier the longer it lasts.

It’s a simple story, one we hear more about these days, especially in big urban areas, as gentrification puts the people who built the culture of those areas out of a home. It’s a difficult situation with no clear solution to keep everyone’s way of life intact. Sachs tells it well, even when the boys’ friendship occasionally feels spoon-fed to us. There are a lot of shots of them roller blading together to upbeat music that are meant to deepen their friendship, but it’s the conversations about their families and dreams that do all the legwork.

The ending also leaves a little to be desired. For such a dour story, there could be more of an uplift to send us off with, which appears to be the intent. Instead, you’re left with a sense that some of our biggest hurdles as children don’t matter in the long run. Maybe that’s true, but I yearn for a better way of saying it within the bounds of this story. After all, this truncated version of the main character arcs was not a mistake Sachs made in Love is Strange.

That said, Little Men is still a worthy follow up. The director continues to strike the perfect balance between romanticizing New York and shedding light on its by-nature more complicated standards of living. Featuring some strong performances and an emotionally resonant story, you’re left with a perfectly watchable, if unremarkable, summer indie with just enough to mull over after you leave the theater. In these dark summer 2016 movie doldrums, that can be enough. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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