Little Men review – Ira Sachs' achingly humane family drama soars

The Love is Strange film-maker triumphs with a remarkably naturalistic and deeply moving tale of two boys at odds with their warring families

Ira Sachs’ dramas are so understated in their ambition, they’re easy to take for granted. Love is Strange, his 2014 film about a married gay couple’s lives capsizing after they’re forced to move out of their New York apartment, argued for marriage equality with near-subliminal stealth and power.

His latest film, Little Men, uses a story about two young boys whose friendship is threatened by their warring parents to offer a piercing examination of gentrification in America. Sachs’ approach is so humane, and his characters so fully rendered, that an agenda never announces itself; instead, Sachs’ worldview seeps into you. He’s that skilled a film-maker.

Theo Taplitz is a remarkable discovery as 13-year-old Jake, an artistic loner who strikes up an unlikely friendship with Tony (Michael Barbieri, equally impressive), after Jake’s grandfather dies. The death results in Jake’s father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), inheriting the building in which Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina Garcia), operates a quaint clothing store. Unbeknownst to the two boys, Brian and his wife, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), have intentions to raise the rent significantly for Leonor; as Brian’s sister (Talia Balsam) firmly relays to her brother, the property is worth $4,000 more per month than Leonor pays. The resulting tensions this stirs up gradually come to affect the children’s lives.

Greg Kinnear and Paulina Garcia in Little Men
Greg Kinnear and Paulina Garcia in Little Men Photograph: PR/SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL

The bond struck by Jake and Tony forms the heart of the picture – and to watch that connection come under fire from circumstances that are out of their control is deeply moving.

The parents, unsurprisingly, lash out horribly at one another when an agreement fails to be made, with Leonor at one point suggesting to Brian that his late father favored her over his own son. But no matter how heated matters get, Sachs and his terrific cast keep the proceedings grounded via a naturalistic approach that is endlessly absorbing and empathetic. No character’s predicament is entirely unsympathetic. The humanity Sachs and his actors depict is profound and leaves a mark.

Dickon Hinchliffe’s perfectly judged score percolates throughout. The cumulative effect of the film is heart-rending.


Nigel M Smith in Park City, Utah

The GuardianTramp

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