Little Men (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): As their little life becomes more complicated

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Intimate and sensitive in its low-key approach, “Little Men” quietly shines with small precious moments to be appreciated for the keen depiction of the emotional undercurrents flowing around and between its two young heroes. The movie maintains its gentle, thoughtful attitude even when their relationship is inexorably affected by the conflict between their parents, and we come to emphasize with not only them but also their parents, while fully understanding their respective positions in a difficult situation with no easy solution.

The movie begins with an unexpected change coming into the daily life of Jake (Theo Taplitz), a 13-year-old kid living with his parents in the Manhattan neighborhood of New York City. His grandfather suddenly died, and Jake’s family soon moves from their Manhattan apartment to a two-story building in the Brooklyn neighborhood which was owned by his grandfather but now is passed down to Jake’s actor father Brian (Greg Kinnear).

As the family settles in their new home on the second floor which was formerly the residence of Jake’s grandfather, Brian and his psychotherapist wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) come to see that there is a financial matter which should be handled as soon as possible. There is a woman’s clothing shop on the first floor which is run by a middle-aged woman named Leonor (Paulina García), and we hear from Leonor that she was like a close family member to Brian’s father. In fact, Brian’s father kindly allowed her to pay him an exceptionally low rent for years, and she expects the same kindness from her new neighbor/landlord.

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Unfortunately, Brian cannot afford that at present even if he wants. Maybe he can ignore the fact that the average rent around the neighbourhood has been raised pretty high thanks to its ongoing gentrification during recent years, but he cannot possibly overlook the current financial status of his family. His acting career has seemed to be going nowhere for several years without making much money, and his family has mostly depended on Kathy’s income. He cannot simply drop a significant financial opportunity for his family just because of following what his father might have wished, and both Kathy and his sister Audrey (Talia Balsam) agree to that.

As Brian and Leonor try to deal with this problem nicely as good neighbors, Jake begins to hang around with Leonor’s son Tony (Michael Barbieri), who quickly becomes his close friend via their common interest in art. While Jake wants to be a painter, Tony aspires for acting career, and they even consider going together to Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performance Arts someday.

The more they spend time with each other, the more we notice how different they are. While Jake is a sensitive kid who usually looks shy and reserved compared to his friend, Tony is more outgoing and confident with his talkative attitude, and their different personalities are evident particularly during the Sunday night party scene filled with various kids around their age. While Jake just stays at the fringe, Tony actively approaches to a girl he is interested in, and what happens between him and that girl leads to a wordless but profound moment feeling as loud as its exuberant surrounding.

Meanwhile, their parents continue to be embroiled in their business conflict. Brian tries to be reasonable with Leonor, but there is the limit on how much he can step back for her, and the same thing can be said about Leonor, who simply cannot afford to pay the rent as much as Brian requests. After being more aware of their parents’ conflict, Jake and Tony respond to this situation through their defiant silence toward their parents, but their action only reminds their parents more of how frustrating the situation is.

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The director Ira Sachs, who wrote the screenplay with his frequent collaborator Mauricio Zacharias, keeps everything calm and gentle even around that point, but the emotional intensity of his characters’ conflict is more palpable than before. During one of their conversation scenes, Leonor reveals something personal about Brian’s father after being more frustrated with Brian, and we can see how much that hurts him even though he merely gives a flat response to her. In the end, there comes the inevitable moment of hard decision, and we can sense the pain and guilt from the characters in that crucial moment as the performers stay true to their characters without any misstep.

While Greg Kinnear, Paulina García, Jennifer Ehle, Talia Balsam, and Alfred Molina (He plays an old friend of Leonor, by the way) are dependable in their respective roles, the movie ultimately belongs to young performers Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri, and they are fabulous in their unadorned natural acting which fits well with the realistic atmosphere of the movie. I also admire how deftly Sachs handles other young performers in the movie as interesting human details to observe, and this is exemplified well especially during one brief passing shot which possibly suggests Jake’s awakening sexuality.

Like Sachs’ previous films “Keep the Lights On” (2012) and “Love Is Strange” (2014), “Little Men” so effortlessly unfolds its understated drama that, to be frank with you, I struggled to some degrees for describing how it did its job well enough to touch me a lot. You may not be convinced enough to watch it yet, but I assure you again that you will be surprised by its rich human experience generated from modest but undeniably powerful moments. In short, this is one of the small gems of this year you cannot miss.

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