Film and TV

Ira Sachs' Little Men Is a Don't-Miss Look at Growing Up in an Inconstant New York

Cities, like young people, are forever becoming something new. The latest tender charmer from Ira Sachs chronicles the growing pains of teens and Brooklyn with the wry sensitivity and eye for economic reality that distinguished Sachs' Love Is Strange (2014) and Keep the Lights On (2012), which began a sort of trilogy that Little Men closes. Each film is a romance of sorts, co-written by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias and examining relationships between gay men in New York. Keep the Lights On concerned ambitious 20-somethings and addiction; Love Is Strange featured John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as longtime partners newly married but unable to continue paying for their cramped Manhattan apartment.

Little Men complicates and completes the cycle: The impassioned teens of the title, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), spend their hours playing video games and dreaming of getting accepted into LaGuardia Arts High School, but they're not truly a couple. Are they gay? We can't say, really. What tingles between them, for most of the film, is the mysterious attraction of boyish friendship and the gently dangerous chance that it might flower into something more.

Within minutes of meeting, when Manhattanite Jake gets dragged to Brooklyn for a wake in the building his parents are inheriting, the boys lock into each other's lives, each somehow just what the other needed. They don't discuss this; they just immediately accept and adapt. Getting a best friend, sometimes, is like getting a dog when you live in the country: Once in awhile, one just shows up. Soon, Jake's family moves into their new place, and Sachs conjures up a Brooklyn reverie: The boys skate and scoot through parks and down sidewalks, the chiming percolations of Dickon Hinchliffe's score like new possibilities awakening in them.

Bedheaded and scrappy, Tony dreams of life as an actor, while the more refined Jake aims for art; a showcase scene set in Tony's acting class (and pitting Barbieri against his real acting teacher, Mauricio Bustamante) lets an improvisatory Meisner exercise blow up into fireworks. Barbieri's freestyle expectorations dazzle so much that I applauded at my screening.

Soon New York reality impinges on the boys' easy companionship. Tony's mother (the indomitable Paulina García) runs an old-fashioned dress shop in a garden-level retail space in Jake's parents’ building, and the rent she's paying is not quite a fifth of the market value. That means Jake's dad (a marvelous Greg Kinnear) finds himself saying to her the kind of thing nice white people with property so often end up saying: “Well, the neighborhood's changing.” She can't pay more, and the inheritors don't feel well-off themselves, and so, slowly, the inevitable comes to pass: eviction proceedings. In the meantime, the boys find themselves caught between their parents. They go on a speaking strike, as in Ozu's Good Morning, intensifying the situation but not changing any minds.

Sachs, a clear-eyed humanist, honors all his characters' pained perspectives. Watching Kinnear's character sort through his responsibilities is almost as heartbreaking as seeing these friends, who have come so close so quickly, possibly come apart. Being young means everything you do can seem promising, the creation of a self; being a grown-up means much of what you do appears a betrayal.