Little Men (2016)
dir. Ira Sachs
written by: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias
starring: Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri, Jennifer Ehle, Greg Kinnear, Paulina Garcia
2.5 out of 4 stars
Ira Sachs has been exploring homosexual life in unique ways. Keep the Lights On explores hookup culture in the midst of the HIV epidemic. Love is Strange focuses on the nearly invisible older gay male population. Both films approached delicate, little examined portions of gay male life with naturalistic narratives. Shifting to his younger self, Sachs and collaborating screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias explore childhood friendship at the beginning of the teen years.
Recently relocated to Brooklyn to live in his recently deceased grandfather’s apartment, introverted 13-year-old artist Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) is resistant to the decision of his parents Brian and Kathy (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle, respectively). Fortunately, a friendship flourishes between Jake and the downstairs shop tenant Leonor’s (Paulina Garcia) son Tony (Michael Barbieri) develop a close friendship. A growing strained relationship between the new landlord and the longstanding tenant begins to drag the two boys apart. Though they try the keep their friendship together, financial arguments grows due to the lucrative shop being contested.
Ira Sachs struggles with directing his younger, inexperienced actors, which is a problem when they are the leads in the story. Despite the considerably more famous set of actors playing their guardians, the bulk of the story surrounds the friendship and growth during this pivotal period. Unlike last year’s outstanding child performances in Room and Beasts of No Nation, the depth of these characters is less invasive and assaulting; these are everyday kids facing everyday problems. Michael Barbieri stumbles through a thick Brooklyn accent and trips over half of his lines. Theo Taplitz too often appears to be actively reading the lines, rather than performing. The final climactic scenes do show promise for Taplitz. Entirely silent and mid-outburst appear to be his strong points.
Our adult cohort is less impressive overall. The emotional weight of his father’s death barely registers on Greg Kinnear’s face. The ample sadness at his passing and the financial difficulties that came along with his passing are understated to near nonexistence. Paulina Garcia, so fantastic in Gloria, lacks conviction in her calmly desperate attempt to save her shop. When attempting to undermine the encroaching Jardine’s, she plays like Bette Davis cigarette smoking her way through a scene. Her attempts to drop a line bombs. Jennifer Ehle is given far too little, and her psychotherapist character is used mostly as mediator. The absent development of her character did not detract from her overall performance. Even when cringing from unnatural dialogue, Ehle still delivered conviction.
Lacking the authenticity of his previous work, Ira Sachs has delivered a subpar examination of youth friendship and family drama. It’s worrisome anticipating an admired director’s career; much like with Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, if I was unaware of his fantastic previous work, I doubt I would have been so disappointed. Next up, Sachs and Zacharias are teaming for a Montgomery Clift biopic related to his budding friendship with Elizabeth Taylor. Give these men overtly campy, homosexual subject matter and let them have a bit more fun; they seemed a touch distracted on this one.