It’s a message-machine about gentrification, couched in a fleetingly charming story of youthful friendship, that never once feels effortless or honest. Sachs attempts to cloak the calculated nature of the screenplay by aspiring to be a hangout movie at times, but this, along with the ever-present musical cues, only draws more attention to its manipulations. It’s a picture of honesty, not an honest picture.
Little Men introduces us to the Jardines – Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), Brian (Greg Kinnear), and their son Jake (Theo Taplitz) – who have recently relocated from Manhattan to Brooklyn after the death of Brian’s dad. The elder Jardine has left them the apartment building he’d lived in for years, which is convenient since Brian’s acting career hasn’t exactly been taking off. Kathy is gainfully employed, but the financial pressures are weighing everyone down. The move comes at the right time for the family (though Jake is none too pleased to have to change schools and make new friends).
Luckily for Jake, as soon as they arrive – and I mean, as soon as they pull up to the curb – he becomes best buddies with Tony Calvelli (Michael Barbieri), the similarly-aged son of the Chilean woman, Leonor (Paulina Garcia), who owns and manages a dress shop on the ground level. The two boys are from different worlds, but both are artistically inclined – Jake’s an artist, Tony wants to be an actor, both want to go to a prestigious school for the arts – and they bond over a love of video games. Where Jake is studious, Tony brags that he got a B+ on a school assignment, even though he barely tried: “Teachers are wack. Spend an hour and get a good grade. Really try and they fail you.”
The film is at its meager best when we hang out with the two of them, and Sachs gets some sporadically interesting moments out of both. An acting exercise in which Tony and a teacher square off, shouting and interrogating each other, is a highlight. As Jake, Taplitz channels the anxieties of a quiet, sensitive boy pretty well, and the bond between them can be affecting, when they’re not saddled with the stilted dialog Sachs provides.
But these humanistic moments are really foils for the larger gentrification narrative. The white family who has moved in is on a collision course with the Chilean single-mother downstairs, and the boys, inevitably, will be stuck in the middle.
“The neighborhood is changing,” Brian tells Leonor, “and you can’t expect to pay what you’ve always paid.” It’s a phrase – “The Neighborhood Is Changing” – that Sachs repeats no fewer than three more times, in case we missed it. I half-expected it to appear on a billboard – “Welcome to the changing Brooklyn!” Maybe it did, in the background of one of the five interminable cityscape montages.
Kinnear plays Brian as a wounded and exhausted person trying to do the right thing, but it rings false throughout, even with a callous sister character, existing for the sole purpose of humanizing Brian, who has no compunction about evicting the free-loading Chilean dressmaker who their father coddled during his lifetime. As Leonor, Garcia fares better, conveying both her character’s worries about the future and her pride. But she’s undone, too, by a screenplay that asks her to insult Brian’s manhood and financial situation on his dead father’s behalf. Nothing about this works.
In the end, things shake out as they must, or as Sachs feels they must, and we’re presented with the sting of childhood loss. Did I say “presented with”? No, we are bombarded with it, as soaring strings insist, “This is the part where you cry.” My reaction was closer to irritation than empathetic grief.
Sachs’ previous film, Love Is Strange, dealt with the trials and tribulations of modern-day New York life on the economic margins in much more nuanced terms, though he had the benefit of John Lithgow and Alfred Molina (who briefly appears here too, unsurprisingly making the most of his two minutes of screen time).
That film was also writerly, but it was heartfelt in a way that Little Men never approaches. Everyone is trying so hard here that it feels almost mean-spirited to knock the film, but the effort is exactly the problem. It’s more a junior-high essay than a movie, the kind of thing Tony would’ve dashed off in an hour before heading to the park to play soccer. Unlike Tony’s paper, this is not a B+ affair. Hopefully, Sachs’ next film will mine the things that clearly concern him about East Coast life in 2016, but in a way in which the seams aren’t quite so frustratingly evident.