By Daniel Barnes
*Opens today at the Landmark Clay in San Francisco.
With this wistful number and 2014’s autumnal Love is Strange, the films of Ira Sachs are becoming the cinematic equivalent of rustling leaves. I’m fairly sure that I don’t mean that as a compliment, and 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 get a rise out of me. The connections between the characters slyly coil like creeping vines, the direction is understated and melancholy, and the performances are authentic and smart…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, and sparking a doomed but passionate friendship between their star-crossed pubescent sons (Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri). Sachs thrives on capturing the moments when a public facade morphs into a private epiphany, but 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. Meanwhile, there’s an Ayn Rand-ian undertone to the film’s haughty attitudes about artistic destiny that I can only assume was unintentional.