Coming-of-age stories, particularly cinematic ones, are usually defined by youth's simple pleasures. Unfortunately, life has its equal share of simple pains. Little Men, directed by Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange) is that rare movie with both. Small in size but ample in spirit, Little Men is an innocent remembrance that tempers pleasures and pains--not really big ones--with little mush or melodrama. In that delicate balance, Little Men has set itself apart from so many of the movies of the summer movies of 2016, which has turned out to be a forgettable season.
Little Men captures the mystery of adolescence washed away by adulthood: Little things mean a great deal. Time and again, many filmmakers have missed the point, instead imbuing their coming-of-age movies with hints of danger or trauma. The fact is, much of life is less jagged. True, youth tends to over-exaggerate events such as moving to a new neighborhood, losing a friend or making a new one, but time eventually rounds off those edges and we learn parents are far from perfect, the world isn't always unfair and the kid down the block wasn't such a jerk after all.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Little Men is its inclusion of different points of view from each of its adults and adolescents, such as 13-year-old Jake (Theo Taplitz), who hates that his parents have moved the family from their Manhattan brownstone to Brooklyn. The overriding reason for the move to Brooklyn is money, or the lack of it: dad (Greg Kinnear) is a barely-working actor, and mom (Jennifer Ehle) shoulders most of the family's financial responsibility, working as a "conflict resolution specialist" (translation: blue collar psychotherapist). When Jake's grandfather dies, the family sells their Manhattan home and moves into the late grandfather's old Brooklyn walk-up apartment to help make ends meet. The family discovers grandpa also owned a nearby Brooklyn storefront, rented for next to nothing by a Chilean immigrant dressmaker (Paulina Garcia). The dressmaker's son, 13-year-old Tony (Michael Barbieri) takes a shine to Jake and the two become Brooklyn's newest misfits. The duo gets along like peanut butter and jelly—not because either is great on his own, but because they're better when they're together. The unbridled Tony talks about his dreams of being an actor while the sensitive Jake shares his comic-book art that hasn't yet been recognized as something that will undoubtedly be very special one day.
As usual, the complexities of the adults' lives cast long shadows over the simplicities of Jake and Tony. Jake's parents need to ask Tony's mother to pay more rent for her dress shop or risk eviction as gentrification settles into the neighborhood, but she struggles to make Jake's parents understand how heavily she depended on the nearly rent-free existence offered by Jake's late grandfather. Such economic generosity rarely extends across generations, especially since Jake's parents are pinching pennies. It is one of youth's simple pains to watch your parents put a price tag on so much of their lives, but from the parents' perspective, they only want to secure a better life for their children.
That powerfully understated message is expertly crafted by co-writer/director Sachs.
Ultimately, Little Men is a modestly scaled film, but it's what gives it so much heft. Sachs allows his lens to linger on scenes where another filmmaker might be eager to edit. For example, Sachs takes great care to let the audience glide along through Brooklyn's streets alongside Tony on a scooter and Jake on rollerblades.
Sachs also invites us to another particularly pleasing scene in which young Tony goes toe to toe with his drama teacher in an improvisation exercise. It's a hoot, and it goes on for a full two minutes, which may not seem like a long time but in a movie this short (about 90 minutes), Sachs sends a clear message his story is much more about people than their problems.
The one scene that will probably stick with you long after you see Little Men (I still can't get it out of my head) comes near the end of the film, where we see Jake and Tony, several years later. We get a teasing glimpse of how things worked out for their collective, yet individual journeys. There's no real dialogue in the scene, yet it's one of the most touching moments I've witnessed at the movies in quite some time. Hint: If you're a parent, bring some Kleenex.
There are no gimmicks here. No one shoots a gun. No one is assaulted. No one gets hurt. Little Men isn't a matter of life and death. Just life.