When a generous patriarch dies, the lives of two families are altered in Ira Sachs' beautifully poignant slice of life drama "Little Men ."
In the film, Brian Jardine (Greg Kinnear), a struggling actor, his wife, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), a psychotherapist and the breadwinner of the family, and their 13-year-old son Jake (Theo Taplitz) uproot their Manhattan lives and move into Brian's late father's home in Brooklyn.
On the ground floor of the residence is a tiny store that sells handmade dresses. The owner, a Chilean woman, Leonor Calvelli (Paulina Garcia) also has a young son, Tony (Michael Barbieri), who Jake quickly befriends.
Jake is an old soul with an artist's eye and sensitivity. Tony is a charismatic neighborhood kid with a thick Brooklyn accent and acting ambitions. They're both angling to get into the same art school too. Their friendship is pure, immediate and quite charming — these two kids are some true talents.
But there's an unspoken tension lingering below the surface in Leonor's interactions with the Jardines. She knows what's coming even if the audience can't quite see it yet. They live side-by-side in relative peace for a time, and then the conversation happens: Brian tells Leonor that she needs to sign a new lease and pay more rent.
Leonor had been shielded from the changing tides of the neighborhood under the charity and protection of Brian's father. They were friends, and he liked the "glamour" of having the shop there, she explains. But Brian is not his father and he and his sister are thinking practically about the space. What do they owe this woman, after all? And hasn't she gotten by for longer than she would have under any other circumstance?
But even at a discount, Leonor can't afford the new rent.
Leonor lashes out in her reserved, but piercing way, telling Brian that she was more his father's family than he was. She was there the day he died. She was there every day. Brian responds appropriately — that that's a ridiculous thing to say. Both are right, and both are wrong, but the die has been cast and there is no turning back from this.
Alone, it's a good story, but it's the very different-on-paper little men at the center, Jake and Tony, who give it that extra weight of tragedy, as they watch their parents unravel with greed and pride and vow to stop speaking to them until they work it out.
It's not about gentrification, Kathy tries to tell Leonor. They aren't the ruthless rich, colonizing a new neighborhood. Brian doesn't make any money and hasn't in a while and they need the rent money from the store, she says.
Again, it's partially true and partially not. You get the sense that the Jardines would be OK. The stakes for the Calvellis are so much higher. But you also can't necessarily fault the Jardines for wanting to claim the full value of what is now rightfully theirs. The adult actors are all excellent — Kinnear especially — delivering elegant lines from Sachs and his longtime co-writer Mauricio Zacharias ("Love is Strange," ''Keep the Lights On") with a lived-in realism.
"Little Men" unfolds like a play in a taut 85 minutes. Its smallness makes it grand and moving. These are the things, these little moments, decisions and consequences that most human lives are made of, after all.
"Little Men," a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for "thematic elements, smoking and some language." Running time: 85 minutes. Four stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
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