Little Men (2016; Ira Sachs)
By Daniel Barnes
With this melancholy number and 2014’s autumnal Love is Strange, the films of Ira Sachs are becoming the cinematic equivalent of rustling leaves. I’m sure that I don’t mean that as a compliment. While Little Men is a delicately constructed and achingly restrained tour-de-force of emotional repression set in a rapidly changing New York, the filmmaking is probably just too tranquil and sedate to keep me invested.
The connections between the characters slyly coil around like creeping vines, the direction is understated, and the performances feel authentic. All that and a plot and you’d have one hell of a movie. Struggling actor/jerk Brian (Greg Kinnear, of course) and his sugar-mama psychotherapist wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle, subtly stealing the film) inherit prime real estate in gentrified Brooklyn when his estranged father passes away. They swiftly move into the building, leading to tension with a Chilean store owner (Paulina Garcia) accustomed to paying friend prices on the rent. Meanwhile, a doomed but passionate friendship sparks between the two family’s star-crossed pubescent sons (Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri).
Sachs thrives on capturing the moments when a public facade morphs into a private epiphany. However, in this case, his liberal piety and tasteful restraint get in the way of his everyone-has-their-reasons humanity. The store owner doesn’t have a moral leg to stand on, and yet Sachs strains to sympathize, forcing Brian to grow so steadily petty and spiteful that by the end I half expected him to start eating live cats and dogs. At the same time, there’s an Ayn Rand-ian undertone to the film’s arrogant attitudes about artistic destiny that I can only hope was unintentional.