Ira Sachs’s new movie Little Men is a wonderful reminder of being a preteen, before high school and relationships and owning property and disappointing your own children. The story centers around two twelve-year-old boys, Jake and Tony, who meet when Jake’s family takes over ownership of the building where Tony’s mother works. At their age, Jake and Tony aren’t self-conscious about being friends. Their differences (Tony brashly outspoken; Jake quietly driven) complement each other, and they encourage the other’s talents. Their family’s separate economic and ethnic backgrounds don’t seem relevant when they’re together. It helps that Theo Taplitz as Jake and Michael Barbieri as Tony are supremely confident, watchable actors. Barbieri, especially, is a young force of nature, with his deep-voiced, thick Bronx accent and knack for comedy.
In the world of Little Men, at this age, it’s easier to accept your friend unconditionally. Tony likes having a trusting friend; Jake is possibly attached to Tony in a way he can’t explain. Given his already reserved nature, there’s no concrete evidence he’s wrestling with his sexuality, but from Sachs’s own queer identity, and small hints here and there, we infer he’s dealing with more pronounced feelings. When another kid bullies Tony about Jake’s femininity, Tony fights back physically; he’ll defend his friend without making a big deal of it to Jake. If the characters were just a few years older, their sexuality could be divisive, friendship-ending. The movie catches Jake just before that next stage of his life, when he starts to figure out what he really desires.
Little Men relates better to the boys than to their parents, whose rent dispute threatens to end their newfound friendship. With the movie only eighty-five minutes long, Mom and Dad get short shrift. As new landlords, Theo’s parents (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle) wrestle with raising the rent on Jake’s mom (Paulina Garcia), to keep up with their rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Thankfully Sachs sidesteps some of the obvious tropes his plot could fall into. Kinnear, Ehle, and Garcia all add real stakes and sympathy for the grown-ups that only occupy a fragment of Sachs’s narrative. Their main effect is to reflect back on the boys, who start to see adulthood revealed for the cruel, unsparing thing it is.
Sachs has a more cohesive, more focused movie here than his previous, Love Is Strange. He’s a filmmaker I hope to see more from. He leaves so much unspoken between the two best friends in Little Men. We see glimpses here and glimpses there of their lives before — what do you know? — they grow up.