The Films of 2016: Little Men

Having been impressed with Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange (one of my ten favorite films of 2014) I was eager to see his new film Little Men, which screened here at IFF Boston last night.  A modest coming-of-age drama, it opens with 13-year-old Jake Jardine moving to Brooklyn with his family to take over the apartment they have inherited after the death of Jake’s grandfather.  Jake—quiet, imaginative, artistic—quickly makes friends with Tony, the cocksure Chilean kid whose mother owns a shabby little boutique below the new apartment.  Their friendship ends up being tested when Jake’s parents raise the rent on the shop and Tony’s mother refuses to pay.

Like Love Is Strange, which Stephanie Zacharek praised for being a great movie about New York real estate, Little Men is smart about issues of gentrification, class, and race.  Sachs subtly but pointedly contrasts the life of Tony’s mother Leonore, who toils away at a sewing machine for most of the day and appears to spend the rest of her time stress-smoking, with that of the bourgeois Jardines: Jake’s mother, a psychiatrist, can afford to take Mondays off and still support the family while his dad pursues a fledgling acting career.  Played smartly by Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle, the Jardines exhibit guilt and discomfort at the thought of displacing Leonore and Tony—but not so much that they don’t gradually move ahead with plans to evict them.  (They see themselves as passive players in an economic game that they convenienty happen to be winning.)  Meanwhile, Leonore, played with a quiet steeliness by Paulina Garcia, does little to endear herself to them, or us; her attempt to dig in her heels—the only act of defiance she can perform—reads as spiteful and even pathetic.  But what else can she do?  As a powerless figure, she has only her spite and her wounded pride to which to cling.            

The bifurcated structure of Little Men, in which we’re continually bouncing back and forth between the real estate plot and the Jake-and-Tony plot, doesn’t cohere as fully or as satisfying as it might have.  At times the film feels like two different stories that have been stitched together a bit clumsily.  The boys’ story has more to do with friendship, masculinity, and sexuality, as Sachs suggests (ever so tentatively) that Jake is carrying a torch for Tony.  Sachs’ previous two films have been about the intricacies of gay relationships, and here the sensitive, gangly Jake signifies as a figure for a homosexuality of which he may be only just becoming conscious.  But, much to my disappointment, the film keeps dropping this thread.  The loveliness and grace with which Sachs handles his characters (and his actors) remains both a blessing and a curse; he’s proven himself to be wonderful at assembling the ingredients of a good film, but he doesn’t always know how to make them work together.

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