Wednesday 15 January 2020

From the archive: "Little Men"

We might consider Ira Sachs the glorious exception to the rule of 21st century American cinema. Here’s an independently minded writer-director who, by some stroke of good fortune, has been allowed to pursue the option of telling intimate, nuanced, quotidian stories, unswayed by the lure of comic-book lucre. In certain respects, his new film Little Men picks up where 2014’s quiet triumph Love is Strange left off. Again, we find Sachs ruminating on the vagaries of New York’s property market, and how money can drive people apart; the tragedy this time is that it should affect mere children.

The grand design is a parable of gentrification, played out around one Brooklyn residence undergoing a change of ownership. Sachs and regular co-writer Mauricio Zacharias lay their dramatic foundations, however, in the upstairs-downstairs friendship between two boys: Jake (Theo Taplitz), nervy, artistically inclined son of the therapist-actor couple (Jennifer Ehle and Greg Kinnear) who’ve just inherited this property, and the posturing, brawnier Tony (Michael Barbieri), whose Chilean mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia) runs the failing dress shop on the building’s lower floor.

Despite markedly different personalities, the boys are inseparable: they scoot and skate together, pass merrily between floors to guzzle hotdogs and play videogames, and make blithe plans to attend LaGuardia High, where Jake intends to study art and the more extroverted Tony aims to pursue drama. Yet the grown-ups are less united – less so still after Jake’s folks float the idea of renegotiating terms with Leonor, or even evicting her altogether so as to boost their income. Under this roof, childish simplicity has to co-exist with the complexities of adult interaction.

Sachs, however, entirely resists cranking this contrast up. The tension within this property is certainly felt, a persistent background hum bugging everybody in earshot, but for the most part, the background is where it stays. No director currently working is more fascinated by the minutiae of everyday human interaction: it’s why, perhaps, Sachs leaves in a (funny) acting exercise in which Tony and his drama coach throw variations of the same phrase back and forth. We’re being schooled to look for those ways in which we react to those we’re communicating with, whether in times of peace or conflict.

Throughout, Sachs and Zacharias find unexpected means of depicting how the adults’ growing antagonism filters down to their offspring: it puts an end to the sleepovers, for one, as the folks decide they need safe space to let off steam about their situation. Yet sensitive casting and playing ensures it’s never rubbed in our faces. Perma-nice Kinnear and ever-mumsy Ehle hardly seem like grasping land barons – that they’re even prepared to discuss terms suggests a pang of conscience – yet they have inherited a degree of wealth, and the privilege that comes with it.

Equally, though, Garcia retains that flinty edge she flaunted in 2013’s sensational Gloria: Leonor’s no patsy, and Sachs ensures Garcia never does anything so demonstrative as to beg for our sympathies. The result is that, like a Jake or Tony or any other kid in a custody battle, we’re caught right in the middle, our hearts going out first to the wide-eyed youngsters entering into early negotiations with the wider world, then their guardians, who’ve been on this planet long enough to learn just what a grinding process that can be – and might themselves prefer to scoot away somewhere.

Again, the balance, wisdom and generosity displayed hereabouts is enough to propose Sachs as a modern master; given the bland, banal, thoroughly packaged nature of some of the indie movies that have fallen under awards consideration these past few years, it remains astonishing that this observant, thoughtful, compassionate filmmaker hasn’t received greater attention and acclaim. Then again, it may be more fruitful, for him and us both, if Sachs continued as the best kept secret in American movies. See and cherish Little Men, then – just don’t tell your friends.

(MovieMail, September 2016)

Little Men screens on Channel 4 tonight at 1.40am.

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