Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Review: "Little Men"

"Little Men" is a movie about the little moments and in-between spaces of human relationships. It sets out not to spin a complicated plot but to present a small group of people to you and then observe them closely. It's a tender and true portrait of what it's like to be a 13-year-old boy, or a parent of one.

Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri play the boys, and they're just magnificent. Honest, unadorned reflections of the awkwardness and cockiness of that age. Taplitz plays Jake, a budding artist who's reserved and thoughtful, a tiny bit alienated. Barbieri is Tony, outspoken and outgoing, delighting us with a New York patois filled with verbal idiosyncrasies and rhythms.

Tony, not surprisingly, wants to be an actor. They both aspire to get into a fancy Manhattan arts high school.

Jake's parents are Brian (Greg Kinnear, in fine form), an actor who labors for his craft but earns little income doing it, and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), a psychotherapist who acts as the family's even keel. Tony's only parent is Paulina (Leonor Calvelli), a Chilean expat who runs a quaint little dress shop in Brooklyn.

The group is brought together by the death of Brian's father, who owned the shop building shop and the apartment above, where Brian grew up. They decide to leave their pricey Manhattan place to take up residence there. Their interactions with Paulina are pleasant if a little distant. But Tony and Jake become instant best friends.

Director Ira Sachs ("Love Is Strange"), who co-wrote the original script with Mauricio Zacharias, has an intrinsic feel for the outlook and emotionality of young teenagers. It's a tough age for boys (or anyone), caught between school, girls, video games and parents. Tony feels the pull to maintain a sense of bravado, so he instigates a fight against a friend in the face of some harmless teasing. Jake is more an observer and introvert, so having someone like Tony to push and pull him into socializing is beneficial.

I adored the moment where Tony plucks up the courage to ask a classmate out while they're dancing in a crowded club and she tells him she's "into older men." (Like what? A 17-year-old? Honey, 17-year-olds don't want to date 13-year-olds unless some of their wiring is crossed.) Rather than going screwy with anger, Tony simply says, "Thank you for being honest," then slinks away.

The trouble arises when it comes time to renew the lease for Leonor's store. Brian's dad never raised the rent, so the $1,100 a month she's paying is seriously under-market in a hip gentrifying neighborhood. Brian's more mercenary sister, Audrey (Talia Balsam), insists they could get $5,000. He's a decent man but they could use the money. He offers an in-between price.

When presented with this problem, Leonor tends to just... disappear. She avoids conversations, or steers it in another direction. When eventually confronted, she goes into long speeches about how much Brian's father appreciated having her there, how her ship is a staple of the neighborhood. When this doesn't work she grows more subtly caustic, insinuating the Brian's father questioned his manhood because his wife brings in almost all their family income.

Leonor likes to think of herself as the voice of wisdom, valuing the community over the individual -- but she's got a streak of steel in her, too. Meanwhile, Leonor's friend the lawyer (Alfred Molina) takes a look at the paperwork, ratcheting up tensions.

The boys react to the conflict by drawing closer to each other. They make a pact not to speak to their parents until the matter is resolved. The trio of grownups try to brush off this minor rebellion, but their patience eventually wears thin. (There's only so much nodding a parent can take at the dinner table.)

"Little Men" is a movie of small revelations, not any big "aha" moment. Things end on an ambiguous note, because that's how life mostly plays out. It's a story of people intersecting -- sometimes hugging, sometimes abrading against each other.

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