With the sudden death of his grandfather, fate conspires to have young Jake meet Tony – a kid of a similar age who quickly becomes an inseparable best friend.
Jake is moving from Manhattan into a new apartment in Brooklyn that has been bequeathed to his father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), by his late father. Below this new apartment of theirs is a small retail unit – also a part of the inheritance.
Its occupant is Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina García). She is a rather bohemian seamstress, making her own clothing to sell from the shop, but with the increasing gentrification of the neighbourhood, business she finds is increasingly poor.
For a short while the whole set up is ideal. Jake – who we are informed is (much like his father once was), a bit of a loner – has a new friend, and his parents have a loyal, dependable and kindly tenant for their shop. Leonor, whilst polite and courteous, is however noticeably reluctant to become too involved in the lives of Brian and his wife, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle). It’s almost as if she knows to keep a distance owing to the often precarious nature of tenant / landlord relationships, though she is pleased that her son has found a new friend.
Unfortunately, the shop was bequeathed to both Brian and Audrey (Brian’s Sister – played by Talia Balsam), and without any emotional ties to the tenant, she is keen to maximise the value of their newly inherited asset. Rumours of being able to increase the existing rental income threefold, in line with the rest of the neighbourhood, are enthusiastically – yet rather thoughtlessly, considering the company in attendance – banded about the dining table one evening by Audrey, at a family barbecue.
Brian is a kind-hearted soul, but realising that having inherited the entire apartment for him and his family, it’s only fair that Audrey should take the lead in any decision making relating to the shop.
A new lease, demanding a ‘fair’ increase in rent is proposed, but totally out of the question for Leonor who can barely make ends meet as it is, and an inevitable frosty landlord / tenant relationship follows, becoming increasingly bitter and personal as the days roll on. Not only this, but the entire episode begins to put an unavoidable strain on the boys’ new found friendship.
Whether it be their subsequent vow then not to speak to their respective parent(s), or Leonor’s revelation that Brian’s father was embarrassed by his son’s inability to provide adequately for his family, whilst also being adamant that Leonor should stay put, citing her business’ very presence as far too important and special to the neighbourhood for it to be lost, they all arrive at something of an awkward impasse, leaving each of them to wrestle with their conscience.
Such a predicament makes for particularly gruelling viewing owing to Ira Sachs’ wonderful ability to not only make us truly relate with these characters, but to thoroughly emotionally invest ourselves in their collective predicament and respective fortunes.
The two boys, despite everything, remain bonded by their desire to end up attending the same artistic school in the future.
Theo Taplitz’ depiction of Jake is a rather aloof one, portraying a young kid that seems somewhat at odds with what he wants in life, although his pursuance of a burgeoning artistic talent hints at the direction that he should ultimately take. Michael Barbieri brings Tony’s dreams of being an actor to the big screen with a notable swagger and attitude. Tony, perhaps owing to a lack of a father figure in his upbringing, is a smart-mouthed, defensive kind of kid who’s not afraid to speak his mind and quick to defend those less able to do so for themselves.
There’s a strong and believable chemistry between the pair of them as they seek to navigate their young lives through these unfortunate, unsettling times, but it’s arguably Kinnear’s tender portrayal of Brian that steals the show here. Kinnear shows brilliantly that glazed look and demeanour of a man attempting to keep it all together . A man racked by both grief and guilt and the subject of cruel barbs from those who know no other way but to strike out at others when unable to deal with their own problems.
If we boil it all down, Little Men is essentially a story of youthful aspirations – and to a large extent, naivety – in the face of the sometimes oh so destructive issues of adulthood, and it’s really rather good.
It’s a film that presents hard lessons for everybody to take and learn from, and in this instance, it’s all expertly handled by a director who clearly understands people and the human condition.