Immediately, Ira Sachs in his film Little Men elicits our sympathy for his protagonist. Jake, a 13-year-old (heartbreakingly portrayed by Theo Tablitz), who sits engrossed in his drawings while his schoolmates create havoc in the classroom.
After the English teacher comes back from a 20 second break, resumes discipline with barking scolds and prowls the aisles to maintain order, he stands at Jake’s desk, sensing a victim he can prey upon to relieve the tension and reconnect to students on their level. The teacher questions a sketch Jake is working on, then in a backhanded compliment, mocks Jake’s response, not understanding the teen’s artistic intentions. For the immature teens, a teacher’s ridicule of one of their own is like meat thrown to starving carnivores. They voraciously swallow the joke with laughter which achingly rings in Jake’s and our ears. We cringe empathizing with Jake’s humiliation at the teacher’s unjust bullying. Then the camera pans to Jake, whom we see is steadfast. He silently looks down resisting the necessity to “answer back” in snark as another kid his age might do.
At that moment Jake becomes a quasi-hero, a standout at his demonstrated wisdom of besting the teacher, though only those of sense would realize it. And we accede with the filmmaker’s choice to place him as the vital character in this subtle, profound film. The scene is one of many which manifest exceptional characterization and thematic presentation as Sachs hooks us with this initial glimpse at a budding artist.
High quality writing and acutely meticulous editing and cinematography abide throughout Little Men. Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias beautifully distill Jake’s character with a thread of issues that concern him. For Jake art in its singularity is a lifeline. It is his purpose, and he is willing to sacrifice time and even pride to pursue its passion and meaning in his life. At the core of his being is an inner strength that flies high above those who are in his age group and milieu. As such he is a loner and does not fit in. Is this such a bad thing?
Talent and resilience are the sterling qualities that Jake manifests throughout the sensitive coming of age tale which encapsulates Jake and his parents played by Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle, a NYC family at a crossroads. Kinnear and Ehle are always superb in whatever roles they take on. It is even more so when they are supplemental to the main action of the film which concerns Jake’s evolution as an artist who must endure the painful experience of letting go, perhaps for a season, in order to arrive at the doorway of artistic opportunity.
Change occurs when Jake’s grandfather dies. At the reception held in the grandfather’s house after the funeral, Jake meets Tony (Michael Barbieri is appropriately energetic, feisty, engaging), the son of single mom Leonor (an excellent Paulina Garcia), the grandfather’s family friend who rented store space from him. Tony favorably comments about Jake’s drawings which he “gets,” unlike the obtuse English teacher, and a friendship is birthed. When Tony invites Jake to play video games, something Tony does all the time but Jake is restricted from doing until after his schoolwork is finished and only at certain hours, a further synergy is established.
Brian, Kathy, and Jake move from Manhattan to Brooklyn (Sachs’ outdoor city scenes have a classic, Sidney Lumet feel), into the grandfather’s home. Jake is uprooted from his school and familiar surroundings and displaced in a residential neighborhood, away from the frenetic hyper drive of Manhattan, the center of the art world. The move, which Jake initially professed a dislike for is beneficial after the transition is made. The family has more living space and Jake adjusts because he becomes close friends with Tony.
It is in the growing friendship between Tony and Jake that filmmakers characterize the youthful vibrance in discovering there are kindred spirits in the world who can understand us like no other. When we find them, we must hold onto them as best we can. Sachs has an intuitive feel for evoking innocence and showing the profound experience of mutual sharing and seeking “the similar.” It is a hedge against the loneliness and alienation which often overtakes teens during the difficult time of puberty and the complex middling period when one is not a boy and not a man.
Their lively friendship is enhanced with varied cinematography: the filmmakers use shots of Jake on his skates and Tony following on his scooter (or vice-versa), sighting Brooklyn neighborhoods. The fluidity of such shots is back dropped by a haunting musical score which echos soaring realms of flight that we come to associate with their bond and artistic inspiration. Especially in these moments, Sachs beautifully depicts what it means to be on the brink of hope and happiness that we can all recall in poignant friendships of our youth, before responsibility and life’s burdens smack us down with their ugly realities.
Jake is able to relate to someone his own age and feel accepted and appreciated for who he is. Likewise, Tony feels close to Jake, and even gets beaten up defending him to his other friends. Though Tony is outgoing, he shares an artistic sensibility with Jake; he wants to become an actor like Jake’s Dad. Together they plot and prepare for the time when they will apply to LaGuardia High School in Manhattan, a high school which specializes in music, the fine arts and the performing arts. Sachs’ spins magic; their relationship is synergy in motion and thrilling to watch.
Brian, who is like most actors in New York City, supported by a loving spouse who is the breadwinner, lands a role in The Seagull with a nonprofit theater. It is not going to yield much money, but he is happy as Kathy is for him because she understands his passion for acting. She supports Jake’s artistic nature: like father like son. Both Brian and Kathy appreciate that Jake has found a friend in Tony; they encourage the friendship and are on excellent terms with Leonor, who continues to rent the storefront at the grandfather’s leased price.
Then the smack down occurs and reality rears its ugliness. Brian’s sister and brother-in-law visit to discuss how Brian, who has inhabited the house, will make it up to his sister. She has yet to receive anything from their father’s estate. One possibility is to raise Leonor’s rent on the storefront. The space is valuable in a the city where developers are kings and homelessness is ignored. They can get 5 times the amount Leonor is paying. But as a single mother, she can only afford the current rent.
Sachs and Zacharias nail down the theme of economic classism; they starkly show that even if one wants to help those who are on a lower rung of the same “have-not” ladder, it is not possible. Leonor, Kathy, and Brian all struggle economically in a city which is unable to nurture them. Brian tells Leonor, “It’s nothing personal; it’s just business.” The words ring hollow to Leonor who emasculates Brian about not being the breadwinner. Sachs’ irony is clearly drawn: ethics, morality or artistic sensibility are luxuries the wealthy cannot afford to consider. Hence, they create oppressive social and financial conditions that benefit only themselves, while turning the little people-friends and family against one another. For Brian, an actor who doubly knows the score, the situation is very painful.
The once peaceful relationship between the families is upended. Rancor intrudes. For a time, the friendship between Tony and Jake is magnificently held in place by what they have shared and the artistic bonds that they have created. They transcend and are little men in ways that outshine the behavior and notions of their parents. A theme the filmmakers infer is in unity and belief in one another, there is power. However, it is not to last. The resolution the filmmakers lay out is ineffable, heart-wrenching, beautiful, even to the symbolism of the painting that Tony views with his classmates from the Catholic school and the final painting that Jake copies, representing the next chapter in his life.
Little Men is “small” but mighty. It haunts in its message about innocence and loss, about spiritual friendships that transcend developers and evictions and the constructs that adults accept, then are imprisoned by. Sometimes, there is solace and hope in art. Sometimes, the richness of a friendship that is over, does last in resplendent memories.