The Ira Sachs-directed Little Men is a family-drama film that features excellent performances but lacks any real tension to have much of an effect.
Brian Jardine (Greg Kinnear), his wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) and their son Jake (Theo Taplitz) move to Brooklyn from Manhattan after inheriting a new apartment following the death of Brian’s father. On the ground floor of the apartment is Leonor (Paulina García), a dressmaker that has been renting her shop there at a budget price for years prior. Brian has the unfortunate task of raising the rent on her now that he and his family are in possession of the property, causing a wedge in the developing friendship between Jake and Leonor’s son Tony (Michael Barbieri).
It’s as basic a premise as you can get, which in the right hands can make for some exceptional viewing. Ira Sachs handles the subject matter with poise, focusing on the burgeoning friendship between Jake and Michael while their parents sort out business matters in the background. It’s a good way to build the characters, but unfortunately it doesn’t leave much room to explore the consequences of essentially taking away a single mother and her son’s livelihood. While we still empathise with Leonor’s predicament and hope for the best outcome, the film doesn’t do enough in the way of building tension between the two families, in order to make for more dramatic viewing (see Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation as an example of a truely world-beating family-drama film).
Where the film shines is in its young actor’s performances. Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri as the friends Jake and Tony, are standouts in their roles and have lots of potential moving forward in their careers. The characters they play are the same age as their real-life selves, making it easier for them to relate to their characters and provide an authentic performance. However a script such as this still requires some serious talent for actors at the tender age of 13. Greg Kinnear is excellent as the reluctant and struggling-actor father, like he is in almost everything he’s involved in, and Jennifer Ehle and Paulina García excel in their roles as mothers that are both the support-systems of their families.
Sachs directs Little Men in an indie-style fashion and the look and feel match that tone successfully. The director plays the drama-card well with the film’s subject matter, even though it’s easily to see through – again, mostly due to the lack of tension. However, it’s easy to understand how an audience might get hooked in to the themes here, especially for anyone watching that may have faced similar adversities in their life.
Little Men likely won’t have you gripping the edge of your seat while watching it, and it tries really hard to get that elusive tear trickle down your face. It may or may not come, depending on the viewer.
Much like his role Tony, Michael Barbieri, who made his feature debut with this film, is an Italian-American actor from New York City and was heading for LaGuardia High School. He was accepted to LaGuardia in 2016 after the film’s premiere.