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'Little Men' Puzzle Out Mysteries Of Friendship And Growth

Tony (Michael Barbieri) and Jake (Theo Taplitz) are natural and relaxed together in <em>Little Men.</em>
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Tony (Michael Barbieri) and Jake (Theo Taplitz) are natural and relaxed together in Little Men.

New York indie filmmaker Ira Sachs makes quietly observant relationship movies that are designed to get under an audience's skin in the gentlest of fashions, but to the most emotional of effects.

His last film, which dealt with the pressures the outside world exerted on a marriage, was called Love Is Strange. His latest is called Little Men, but might easily be subtitled "Friendship Is Strange."

It centers on two 13-year-olds in Brooklyn: Tony (Michael Barbieri), a boisterous, confident, athletic kid from the neighborhood, and Jake (Theo Taplitz), an awkward new arrival, who is both sensitive and a budding artist. They meet for the first time when Jake drops some things he's carrying to his grandfather's wake, and Tony, rushing to help him, compliments a sketch he's done.

Tony knows what Jake hasn't yet heard: Jake's family is doing some belt-tightening — his Mom (Jennifer Ehle) is a social worker, and his dad (Greg Kinnear) is an actor, and not a particularly successful one.

For financial reasons, the family is moving into Grandpa's old house. Also for financial reasons, they're going to raise the rent on the store downstairs where Tony's mom, played with understated grace by the great Chilean actress Paulina Garcia, makes her living. This will cause friction, but not at first.

Initially, Jake's folks are pleased to see him becoming friends with Tony. "It's not easy," his father says, noting his son's shyness and reserve, "with him and other boys."

It is easy with him and Tony though. Soon they're racing around Brooklyn together, Jake shaky on fancy inline skates, Tony leading the way on a low-rent scooter.

As the boys become friends, though, their parents are drawing battle lines. The neighborhood is changing: Jake's parents are part of an incoming, gentrifying wave, and Tony's mom is likely to be swept out in its wake. It's a social upheaval that filmmaker Ira Sachs captures not in confrontations, but in their avoidance. Tony's mom keeps trying strenuously not to engage with Jake's parents, especially when Jake's mother suggests more condescendingly than she means to that she's good at "conflict resolution" and wants to help smooth things between their households.

The boys, who are extraordinary together on camera — natural, relaxed, hinting at a connection more mature than they're quite ready to deal with — come up with a variation on their parents' lack of engagement. Caught in the middle of a financial struggle, they exercise the only power they have, and stop communicating with their parents. Not one word passes among them for several days, which exacts an emotional penalty without quite fixing any of the problems. Awkward repercussions ensue.

Understated, filled with small gestures and offhand remarks, Little Men gathers force as it goes. Everyone's human, everyone's trying, they're all sort of pulling in the same direction, yet things are still falling apart. It's no accident that the screenplay has Jake's dad acting in an Anton Chekhov play. Sachs has a touch much like that Russian playwright for domestic situations that are real — funny and wrenching all at once.

Also for moments that don't need dialogue to have a kind of eloquence: Jake, for instance, skating where once he and Tony had sped along together, now clearly more confident, but on his own.

Is that a loss? Is it growth? Little Men has the wisdom to let the viewer puzzle that one out.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.