Little Men is a difficult film to pin down. Is it a scathing indictment of gentrification and social inequality? Is it an understated family drama? Is it the depiction of an unlikely friendship between two artistically inclined young teenagers? Or is it, possibly, a mixture of all three?
Thirteen year old Jake is sensitive and quiet; always drawing, he doesn’t really fit in with his classmates. A move to Brooklyn following his estranged grandfather’s death sees a profound and sincere friendship blossom between Jake and the exuberant, talkative Tony, whose mother Leonore rents out a fashion boutique from Jake’s parents. It is the fate of this boutique that drives much of the story throughout the film: Little Men, using Jake and Tony’s friendship as an emotional litmus test, explores the essential conflict between a low-cost, inclusive neighbourhood which celebrates diversity, and the crushing spirit of ‘gentrification’ which cripples the non-affluent with extortionate rent prices.
Director Ira Sachs, recently described as ‘the quintessential auteur of today’s New York’, compellingly captures the raw, human qualities at the heart of this debate. The performances delivered by the entirety of the cast, and the easy naturalness of Sachs’ improvisational directing technique combine to create a striking example of realism in film. Nothing feels contrived, or forced; everything is unaffected. Tony and Jake speeding down the street, optimistic bursts of music almost propelling them along, seem like the most idealistic version of friendship possible – a vision soon to be crushed as events begin to spiral outside their limited control.
Although recent reviews have been inclined to praise Sachs’ representation of friendship in particular – and newcomers Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri certainly deserve a commendation here – for me the most absorbing aspect of Little Men proved to be the complex, almost impossible network of family drama. With the exception of a few stellar scenes such as the acting classes and their jaunt to the surprisingly ravey under’s club, the screen time allotted to Jake and Tony’s friendship didn’t do adequate justice to the importance it undoubtedly held within the film. Similarly, the abruptness of the film’s ending was almost jarring in its overwhelming sense of unresolved questions. We left the cinema slightly puzzled, debating the film’s multifarious, occasionally overlooked possibilities. An intriguing film, with moments of true tension and a fascinating topic at its core; but one that, all too often, failed to pull me in.