Little Men, the new gentrification drama from writer/director Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange), has a rich premise and two excellent young stars. Its thinness—its inability to satisfy the expectations it sets up—comes from Sachs's unwillingness to explore both sides of the class divide in his double story.
Little Men is about the sudden, deep friendship between two thirteen-year-old boys: Jacob (Theo Taplitz), a yearning, driftwood Manhattanite who wants to be an artist, and Antonio (Michael Barbieri), a brash Brooklyn chatterbox who wants to be an actor. And it's about real estate. Jacob and Tony meet because Jacob's late grandfather owned the brownstone in which Tony's mom Leonor (Paulina Garcia) operates a dress shop, selling her own designs. The grandfather dies, leaving the building to Jacob's father Brian (Greg Kinnear) and aunt (Talia Balsam)—who immediately realize that Leonor hasn't been paying anything remotely like a market rent. They need/want the money, in part because Brian's own acting career is fizzling. So they draw up a new lease. And suddenly Jacob's father is in the process of evicting Tony's mom.
The movie has received excellent reviews. It has at least three terrific scenes: Tony killing it in an acting-class exercise; a bizarre scene in an afternoon nightclub for tweens; and Jacob's tearful attempt to repair the breach between the two families. Taplitz and Barbieri are perfect for their roles, in both looks and demeanor. They carry the film for most of its length.
From the early scene in which Jacob tantalizes Tony with a fantasy of world travel, the film explores the American obsession with creativity and “dreams.” These dreams inevitably collide with the iron inequalities of talent and (more importantly) money, and Little Men portrays that clash with nuance and a sharp edge.
But the positive reviews were also, I suspect, the result of an expectations game. If you go in to Little Men expecting a pastel tale of greedy rich folk and noble poverty, you'll be surprised and pleased by the way the script goes out of its way to overturn those clichés. The richer family clearly gets in over its head, and Brian hesitates and feels a lot of guilt about evicting Leonor. Leonor, for her part, is immediately self-righteous and manipulative: Her very first move, when she realizes her store may be under threat, is to pull out a sheaf of photographs documenting her friendship with the grandfather. The richer parents' weakness is met with her fierce, unscrupulous defense of her territory.
The movie carefully balances Leonor's inherently sympathetic motive against her relatively less-sympathetic means. And anyone who has ever been in the position of turning down a neighbor in need will sympathize with the richer family's dilemma. (Not always financial need: I found myself thinking about relationships where the cost I was expected to bear, the obligation I didn't realize I'd incurred until it was too late, was entirely emotional.) The film explores inequality in intimate relationships—for example, what it's like when the needier party pushes for greater intimacy, while the better-off party tries to maintain unrealistically clear lines between obligation and gift.
But that description is incomplete. This film explores what inequality is like in intimate relationships, from the perspective of the better-off party. At some point in the movie's final third, you realize that this was never going to be Tony's story. It is Jacob's story, because Jacob is the dreamy driftwood character, and those silent yearners are the stars in indie flicks, the audience-identification characters; the chatterboxes are comic relief or sidekicks. But making this Jacob's story means that it is also, necessarily, the story of the richer boy and not the poorer one.
We get to see the aftermath of the plot's events on Jacob's family, and we follow him as he drifts sadly and yearningly through the final scenes. We see him begin to understand and reconcile with his father. We don't see the reckoning between Tony and his mom; we don't see Tony's own journey, which would likely be a story of realizing that his mother is less than he thought she was. We see relatively little of Tony's inner life. (That club scene is the exception, where we see his scrupulous, endearingly ridiculous attempt to do the right thing by thanking a girl for turning him down.) Their friendship is totally believable, but neither boy gets quite far enough from the clichés of rich, bullied loner and confident working-class scrapper.
The cuts from scene to scene are hard and well-placed; the camera is always where it should be. The music is both bland and obvious in its emotional tone, but otherwise the problems with the film have nothing to do with aesthetics. The basic problem with Little Men is that it doesn't know how to tell Tony's story, or doesn't care to. It doesn't portray economic inequality so much as replicate it.
Eve Tushnet is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith and Amends: A Novel. She is a writer and speaker living in Washington, D.C., and blogs at Patheos.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.Photo credit Eric McNatt.