Sunday, September 11, 2016

By Hannah Bonner

Little Men (2016) is a movie of understatement – like intuiting a pain but being unable to locate the source. Narratively, the source of conflict and strife in Ira Sachs’ seventh feature film is the inevitable eviction of Leonor Calvelli and her 13-year-old son Tony when the Jardine family moves into the building above her clothing store. The apartment, left to Brian Jardine (played by Greg Kinnear) by his father, provides a new opportunity for Brian (as all his acting work is pro bono) as well as a source of relief for his wife, Kathy (played by Jennifer Ehle), a psychotherapist keeping the family financially afloat. Yet, their son, Jake, becomes quick and close friends with Tony, skating together after school, playing video games, and musing on their future careers as respective actors and artists. The friendship is acutely significant for Jake who is somewhat of a loner. And his parents recognize the importance of this relationship for Jake, even while pressing Leonor on increasing her rent.

Though this is a narrative that might, in a different director’s hands, lend itself to melodrama, Sachs’ shies away from overt dramatics and, instead, focuses on quieter moments and revelations. This is, in part, due to the acumen of the actors, especially Paulina Garcia who plays Leonor with oceanic eyes that show you her emotional depths without having to delve too deep. The boys are naturals too – naturally awkward, naturally wary of being too effuse. When they venture to a club for underage kids it doesn’t feel vaguely smutty or like teenagers play-acting as adults. These are children just starting to navigate the adult selves they’re doing to be. It’s sweet and cringe worthy and rife with all the pitfalls of growing up. But also, blessedly, there’s a pervasive innocence, a rarity these days in coming of age films. Though the conflict of their parents’ casts a pall on the outcome of Tony’s future, tenderness persists, despite the fumbling and failures that come with trying to do right by one’s family or one’s friend. And it is this tenderness that lingers with us, even if we can’t always immediately recognize it, even if we can’t locate the precise, pining source.