[5 out of 5 stars]
There's always that little film that could, coming out of nowhere near the end of the year that just knocks my socks off. LITTLE MEN is a movie of whispered devastation about the inescapable pull of life that brings people together and apart. Like AQUARIUS, the central conflict of the film is related to real estate and gentrification. Set in New York City, Brian (Greg Kenner) with his wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) moves his family into his father's home, who passed away but is left to deal with the shop next door, also owned and left behind by the father but who had a close relationship with the tenant and never raised the rental price for nearly a decade, until now.
Brian is a struggling actor and his family desperately needs the extra money. Actually, I'm not sure desperately is the right word as they seem to enjoy a comfortable, middle class lifestyle. There are details left out and I'm only assuming here, but this may just be greed, and not a 'desperate' need for money.
I'm inserting myself into the story here but I could not have been able to face the task of evicting a good family. But then again, it's also really complicated. And that's what I loved about this movie. The niceties and the politeness slowly disintegrate and the tenant and landlord interactions become increasingly uncomfortable until it turns hostile. But the genius of the movie isn't this story, it's that, as the title suggests, it also brings in the experience of two children: the son of the tenant, Tony (played by a terrific Michael Barbieri) and the son of the landlord Jake (played by the equally terrific Theo Taplitz).
The two become best friends and they plan to go to a specialised arts high school together: Tony aspires to be an actor and Jake an artist. It's the kind of friendship I wished I had when I was younger. Their lives are not yet affected by the struggles with money and other adult problems which makes their story a perfect accompaniment to the rental problem. Despite their youth, their problems, from a third person perspective, seem grander and more significant. Their dreams still seem like dreams. While the adults have to deal with petty paperwork and calculated niceties.
The camera captures just the right face and expression from the actors in any given moment. When Tony talks about the irony of how teachers at his school gave him a high mark for an essay he barely worked on while giving him lower grades on assignments he tried really hard on, the camera catches a smile of recognition across the dinner table from Brian, who is probably wishing he had the boy's problems instead of his.
The framing is also sensitive and observant, the unimportant details are left out of the frame until the right moment - a conversation between a father and a son later reveals the mother listening in their conversation, for good reason. It's a touching moment and there are many moments that shows how hard it is to be a parent. How much you have to navigate, but ultimately also expressing how rewarding it can be.
I haven't had any experiencing of parenting myself. Parenting is just a person's internal struggles externalised as another human being. Parents always dispense advice they too need to take, or life lessons they need reminding of: Kathy tells Jake: "you should applaud your father for being adaptable, it's what life is about." Their children look, talk and behave like them but parenting mostly works in reverse. I really think you learn more from your children than they do from you. I'm not a parent myself, so take those thoughts with a grain of salt but I can't wait to be one and see for myself. Movies like these make me extremely excited - and slightly terrified - of parenthood.
Ira Sachs crafts a beautiful coming-of-age story of two boys, wrapped in a family drama, wrapped in a real estate battle. It's about the gradual changes that happens in our lives like the construction of a new building on a familiar street. Little by little you notice things change and develop over time - maybe the scaffolding is erected, then weeks later the concrete structure replaces it - and then suddenly you notice a shiny new building glistening proudly in the sunlight.
[Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, image credit: Eric McNatt]