“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
For the majority of Little Men, the latest film from director Ira Sachs, we are asked to think back to our own lives, the relationships that we fostered as children, and how relating to people seemingly becomes more difficult as we grow older.
Jake (Theo Taplitz) is already feeling these struggles even at a young age. He gets along well enough with others, but most of those relationships seem circumstantial. That is until he meets Tony (Michael Barbieri), who likes him for him and promotes the passions that lead his life — including art. It helps that Tony himself is seeking a sort of escape into the creative mind as he says he has aspirations to become an actor one day.
The boys get along candidly — playing video games at each other’s houses, asking their parents if the other can stay for dinner, and recapping what girls looked like after their classes. It was a summer fling without the romance and the brisk, sunny aesthetic by Sachs makes it seem all the warmer.
Coldness finds its way into this temperate plot as Jake’s grandfather passes away and bequeaths his Brooklyn apartment to Jake’s father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), who moves the family there following the funeral. Below the apartment sits Tony’s mother, Leonor’s, shop (she is played by Paulina Garcia), who has a pre-determined rent rate due to the relationship she had with Brian’s father. This drives a stick in between Jake and Tony’s friendship as Brian and his sister push for a raised rent for Leonor, who is resistant to the idea.
One of the charming elements of Little Men is its admiration for the creative mind. Sachs is a director who lacks the means of someone of larger stature and his films can be described as small, intimate family portraits. He clearly has a passion for creativity and Jake seems to anchor that obsession in this film as an artist who disappears into his work when he is inspired — which comes from hanging out with his new best friend, Tony.
The fight between art and commerce also turns its head between Brian and Leonor, who seems to want to briskly enjoy her days creating dresses at her shop. One would think Brian — who works as a theatre actor not making much money — would understand the serenity of living for passion, but money and duty gets in the way.
Sachs shares similarities in terms of content to a director like Yasujiro Ozu, who focuses on the small moments of life and how those ripples can affect us. By the end of the movie, the discourse between Brian and Leonor has separated Tony and Jake from being friends further, but it only crushes them for a short time.
In the closing scene, Jake sits with his class at an art museum and sketches one of the paintings. He looks across the room and sees another group standing in front of another painting with Tony among them. This isn’t a moment to find closure or interact with him, but a moment to show the growth of Jake and the positive effect the two boys’ friendship had on him.
As he smiles and returns to his artwork — his world — he recognizes the immense impact that short fling during the summer was, and how above anything, it re-ignited his passion for art that led him here.
Little Men is a film about growing up and the relationships that come and go. Life is made up of moments and sometimes the smallest ones resonate the most and leave the deepest impact. We each have our passion — our will to live — and sometimes finding and becoming more secure with that comes about through the people we meet.