Little Men (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★
For a good while of Ira Sachs’ masterful slice-of-life picture “Little Men,” it is seemingly meandering, directionless, not at all interested in plot and the usual contrivances that come with it. It’s so refreshing to come across a film that has the potential to become anything—just like its thirteen-year-old protagonists who forge a friendship after they meet during a funeral. From the ashes sprouts a sign of life and we wonder for the entire duration of the material whether this life shared by two can endure the roughest storms.
Credit to the casting director Avy Kaufman for choosing young, tyro performers to play Jake and Tony, the budding artist and the aspiring thespian, respectively. These characters are winningly played by Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri, the former’s character an introvert and the latter portraying quite the polar opposite. There is a natural feeling about them that is contemporary, magnetic, and relatable but without the sugary cuteness that plague numerous films—mostly mainstream works—that fall under the same sub-genre. Credit goes to the director and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, for not writing the young adolescents as lovable or delightful when they are as intelligent and interesting as they are. We get a genuine sense of Jake and Tony’s personalities and how these change or adapt when they are together and apart.
The picture forces us to observe—sometimes something important, other times nothing of relevance. We watch the boys the ride scooters and roller skate, play video games, sketch, attend acting classes, interact with their peers at school or at the park. We watch the parents at work, how their entire being changes when at home, their reactions to conflicts in which there are no easy solutions. Notice how images from the chest up are employed more often toward the latter half as if to magnify the stresses everybody is going through.
But the picture is also about listening. We listen to the boys talk about what they want to become, their interests, their hobbies, what they think about their parents and each other. We listen to the adults sometimes talking in circles unnecessarily, stressing out about money, how happy they are that the boys have formed a strong connection. And then we listen to the interactions between young and old yet there is almost always a rift there even when they are connecting. Notice that the decibels have gone up as the story begins to conclude, as if to release the strain that everyone has carried inside them for so long.
There is a vitality and rhythm to “Little Men” that many films simply lack or do not at all bother to achieve. And yet these films are supposed to be about every day lives of every day people. Sachs understands that in order for the big picture to be entirely believable, the details must be exactly right or else discerning viewers would see right through the sham. He respects us as observers and so we can’t help but identify, or at very least respect, his project. And this is why “Little Men” stands head and shoulders above its contemporaries.