Ira Sachs’ latest low-key film commands major attention. When the grandfather of school loner and aspiring artist Jake (Theo Taplitz) dies, his family inherit a now lucrative property that has been rented to Leonor (Paulina García) for many years for her business, cracks begin to open within societal bonds. Jake’s cash-strapped father, under pressure from other desirous family members, must decide whether to allow Leonor to continue renting the property at below market value. Matters are complicated, moreover, when an unlikely friendship flowers between Leonor’s son Toni (Michael Barbieri) and Jake. Refusing to masquerade as a family melodrama, instead offering pensive character studies, through the prism of this scenario Little Men provides an intelligent, incisive interrogation of the effects of gentrification. Its languid naturalism culminates in a climactic scene of lasting, if admittedly understated, power.
The caveat in the previous sentence, enforced by the hyperactive norms in contemporary English-language cinema, is telling. Sachs swooped to claim the 2005 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for his affecting portrait of an isolated émigré housewife in Forty Shades of Blue. Audiences, however, have never flocked to Sachs’ mellow mood pieces in the way that they have for the releases of other American indie directors. One intriguing aspect of his aesthetic is his privileging of the traditionally functional medium shot (he has described it as his ‘passion’) it speaks to his ability to create an open, communicative and refreshingly layered diegeses. Sachs has consistently shown himself to be an outward-looking film-maker having worked with a Spanish cinematographer and a Greek DP here (Christian Voudriouis). The attribute is most certainly in evidence in the philosophical Little Men. His cinephile-esque zeal for film means that his work never fails to be gripping and stimulating fare, with a recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in the United States attesting to its enduring quality.
His sensitive eye for the torment of those typically neglected by mainstream cinema remains as keen as ever. Along with his co-writer Mauricio Zacharias, Sachs fashions an engagingly panoramic study of quotidian, modern American life, highlighting the habitual moral compromises necessary for self-preservation. Like is said in Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, “the terrible thing is everybody has their reasons.” There are some beautifully compassionate following shots, with the maturation and moral hardening of Jake forming a touching if somewhat ambivalent undertone to the film. Jake is the closest thing the audience have to a proxy in Little Men that is to say that we are most firmly aligned with this initially milquetoast character. Sachs, nonetheless, is astute enough to limn each of the characters with convincing depth to elicit the audience’s engagement (if not in all cases necessarily their sympathy). The overall effect is the creation of a bracingly humane work.
Toni and Leonor’s Chilean heritage broadens the social commentary of the film. With the repeated remarks on how Leonor and her work enriches the cultural tapestry of the community, Sachs has a clearly defined positive stance on the notion of New York as a cultural melting pot. The fact that Jake’s grandfather was so eager to see Leonor’s business flourish adds to the moral complexity of the central ethical dilemma. Sachs has spoken of how the viewer will “experience a fluctuation about its moral centre – which is an important part of its suspense”; it is perhaps comparable to an Asghar Farhadi densely plotted familial drama in that regard. There is finally a latent stoicism to Little Men, with Sachs arguing that “stories document change. Cities are forever in a state of flux and what I try to do is be attentive to that crucially avoiding nostalgia and sentimentality.” Little Men carefully eschews cliché in its depiction of the city.
The carefully considered film is punctuated by occasional, powerful emotional eruptions. Most notably when, Brian (Greg Kinnear) Jake’s emasculated father, finally vents his frustrations at his stagnant acting career and forever being dependent on his wife. Kinnear most definitely reiterates his undoubted acting talent with this pleasingly knotty turn. On a similar note, it is rewarding to see Jennifer Ehle in a more prominent role as Kathy, Brian’s wife, than she is generally granted within genre and studio movies. Together, Brian and Kathy, crucially make a sympathetic axis on which the film pivots, as the onus of making the inevitably embittering decision falls on them.
Indeed, under Sachs’ plaintive gaze the events of the film appear to move towards a tragic, ineluctable conclusion. In many respects, Sachs positions Jake and Toni as representing a duality. There is a dash of the Apollo and Dionysus dichotomous pairing to their relationship; the two characters betray their opposing backgrounds through their markedly different temperaments. Sachs contrasts the comparatively cerebral Jake with the more expressive, impulsive Toni; the director has wittily commented that “Michael [functioned] as my Scorsese actor and Theo [functioned] as my Bressonian actor.” There is a symbiotic quality to the friendship that burgeons over the course of Little Men. Toni learns a certain cordiality from Jake, borrowing at one point his mature “sorry for your loss” phrase; Jake meanwhile learns to be more outgoing and relaxed from Toni, developing an appreciation of video games from him. The dramatically compelling relationship between Jake and Toni becomes the nucleus of this off-beat and engrossing film. Much like his marginalised protagonists, Sachs is an artist of considerable stature.
Written by Joe Regan