Little Men (2016)
I remember being 13-years old. I remember it like it was yesterday. My best friend at the time was this kid named Mike. Mike and I lived in different cities and went to different high schools. Every day after classes I’d race home and burn through my homework so he and I could talk on the telephone. We would chat for hours about music and pro wrestling. On the weekends we would hang out. We would watch one of our favorite bad movies (The Avenging Disco Godfather) and walk to our favorite comic book shop or get hamburgers at a local diner. We loved to find pay phones to use to prank call our other friends. Mike was the first real “pal” that I ever had. Those were some of the best times of my life.
Little Men is about that same time. Set in Brooklyn, it follows the story of Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbierio), two polar opposites who became friends when Jake’s family move into his grandfather’s apartment building after he passed away. In addition to inheriting the apartment, Jake’s father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), inherited the storefront space on the ground floor. That space is occupied by a dress store owned by Tony’s mother, Paulina.
Upon meeting, the boys become fast friends. They play video games and spend time at the park together. The gregarious and athletic Tony makes a great foil for the artistic and bookish Jake. Viewers soon learn that Tony wants to become an actor and Jake wants to attend art school.
The story becomes knotty when Jake’s father and aunt (who also co-inherited the building) decide to raise the rent for the store. Bad feelings between Tony’s mother and Jake’s family ensue. Using the logic of 13-year old boys, the two friends decide to give their parent’s the “silent treatment” in hopes of alleviating the situation. It, of course, doesn’t work. Soon the situation between the adults sours to the point that it impact’s the relationship between the boys.
Little Men is complex in its simplicity. The story is straightforward but the nuances aren’t. To 13-year old eyes, friendship easily trumps the cold dealings of business. Unfortunately, that is not how the (adult) world works. Hard choices have to be made sometimes.
The lynchpin of the film is the relationship between the boys. Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri are sublimely authentic in their roles. I’ve never done any acting but I’ve often heard that the most difficult role to play is yourself. They feel like 13-year old boys, not actors playing 13-year old boys. The difference is substantial.
Though set in the present day, the film glistens with nostalgia. There is an enchanting theme song that punctuates scenes showing the boys at play. It is plucky and magical and the perfect accompaniment to “then.” This is a story about children but I don’t think it would necessarily be appreciated by them. The distance of age and life experience is an imperative element of the film that must be provided by the viewer.
Greg Kinnear has proven time and time again that he is an adroit dramatic actor. His effort here is no exception. As the plot unfolds, he delivers a performance that expertly balances compassion with a growing frustration. And when he finally loses his cool, it carries a bite.
Director Ira Sachs captured a couple noteworthy scenes on film for this picture. One takes place during an acting class that Tony attends. He and the teacher run through a skill drill together. The scene bursts with charm and energy. The second shows Brian taking the trash out after his father’s wake. Alone, he breaks down crying. It is intimate and reverent. A few more seconds and it would have felt intrusive but Sachs orchestrated the beat with measured care.
Little Men is both wistful for the halcyon days of youth while respectful of the often unenviable reality of adulthood. It’s a modest story about a complicated matter. Ira Sachs made a coming of age tale not about love or sex, but friendship.