Little Men movie still of young leads Taplitz & Barbieri

Little Men

Little Men is an astute and sensitive portrayal of two adolescent New York boys whose friendship is jeopardised by their warring parents. Features winning performances from the endearing young leads.

Review: (rolanstein)
Little Men kicks off the 2016/17 Perth International Film Festival at Somerville on Monday, November 28. This New York-based coming-of-ager is a good choice as an opener. Suitable for all ages, it focuses on two endearing adolescent boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), whose friendship is jeopardised when their parents come into conflict.

The boys meet when Jake’s family moves from Manhattan to a Brooklyn apartment left to them by his recently deceased grandfather, whose estate also includes an adjoining live-in tailor/clothes shop run by Tony’s Chilean mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia). Leonor’s husband is off the scene (supposedly away working in Angola).

Jake and Tony quickly strike up a friendship. They are very different personalities – the former is introverted, the latter garrulous and outgoing – but share a common dream of a career in the arts. Jakes wants to be an artist, Tony an actor, to which end they both covet a place in an esteemed local arts high school.

The awkward landlord/tenant relationship between their respective parents hits the rocks when Jake’s father (Greg Kinnear) seeks to negotiate a new lease contract in line with current market rates, which will effectively price peppercorn rent-paying Leonor out of the area. The boys join forces against their parents, but come to realise that the escalating situation is out of their control, and that the adult world can deal out harsh, unfair and life-changing hands.

While the film may be seen in part as a commentary on gentrification and its human toll, director Ira Sachs stays off the pulpit. Our sympathies are with Leonor, but Jake’s father is no villain. A struggling actor on a minuscule income, he is hardly flush (although his wife no doubt makes good money as a psychologist), and his renegotiated lease proposal is commercially reasonable. He is also under pressure from his joint benefactor sister, who has a claim on half the rent from Leonora’s shop. Leonora, on the other hand, stands to lose her livelihood and living quarters. Such is the reality of gentrification and the nature of capitalism. Jake and Leonora are merely players in a game that by its very nature has winners and losers. Sachs is observer here, not adjudicator.

His primary focus, though, is the boys and their relationship, and this is where the film excels, due in no small part to the superbly naturalistic and sensitive performances from Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri, caught in the bemusing and often painful no man’s land between child and adulthood. But there is joy and exuberance, also. The boys’ youthful energy is beautifully captured as they hurtle through the streets on roller skates and skooter. Their easy banter and uncomplicated enjoyment of each other’s company ring delightfully true. The script is not crammed with “meaning” – there is a random, improvised quality to the dialogue, which the terrific young actors work tremendously well.

While Little Men follows a familiar narrative trajectory, it has a slice-of-life feel that sets it apart from most coming-of-age movies. Mercifully, too, the kids aren’t hip. They’re products of their day and culture, but really, they could be kids of any era and are thus highly relatable to all viewers.

This gentle, well-crafted little gem was never going to do big business in the multiplexes, but Festival crowds should love it.

Movie website:

Little Men features: Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina García
Director: Ira Sachs
Writers: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias
Runtime: 85 min

Little Men screening dates (2016-17 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival):
UWA Somerville: Mon 28 Nov–Sun 4 Dec 2016, 8pm
ECU Joondalup Pines: Tue 6–Sun 11 Dec 2016, 8pm

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