The domestic tumult in Ira Sachs' keenly observed 2014 film, Love Is Strange, was triggered by a piece of New York City real estate. A gay couple, long together, decide to wed. Alfred Molina's character, a teacher at a Catholic school, loses his job in the aftermath. Without the income, he and his spouse (John Lithgow) are forced to give up their Greenwich Village apartment. Crises ensue.
In the writer/director's equally intimate and perceptive new film, Little Men, a modest property in Brooklyn - a storefront in a rowhouse on a gentrifying block - threatens to undermine the friendship between two 13-year-olds. It's a heartbreaker because Sachs - with the not inconsiderable help of two terrific newcomers - captures the kids' relationship in the most real and telling ways.
When their friendship begins to fracture, you feel it deep down.
Brian Jardine (an understated Greg Kinnear) has just inherited the apartment building where his father lived and where he long rented out the store at bargain rates to Leonor (Chilean actress Paulina Garcia). She has a dress shop. And she has a son, Tony (Michael Barbieri), who talks in a rich Brooklyn accent. He wants to be an actor.
Brian is an actor, but his career has never really taken off. Rehearsing an Off-Broadway production of The Seagull, his line-readings are efficient, but hardly Gielgudian.
Brian's wife, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), a psychotherapist, is the breadwinner. Their son, Jake (Theo Taplitz), is a budding artist. When the Jardines decide to leave Manhattan and move into Brian's father's Brooklyn apartment, economic realities - and Brian's sister (Talia Balsam), eager for some extra cash - force them to confront Leonor.
She is not easily confronted.
There's a gentleness, a sweetness, at the core of Sachs' story. As in the films of the French New Wave's Eric Rohmer, nothing cloying happens here, nothing plainly engineered to elicit emotions. But emotions are elicited - moral and ethical concerns are addressed, examined, defined.
Between the family dust-ups and the mounting tensions with Leonor, Sachs' camera tracks Tony and Jake, one on skates, one on a scooter, as they glide through the neighborhood. They hunker down to play video games, discuss school, their plans for the future.
You know how some kids just connect? Jake and Tony connect. And the adults in their lives, without really meaning to do so, make it difficult for that connection to hold. It is a measure of Sachs' talent and skills that such a seemingly small story can resonate in such big ways.
***1/2 (Out of four stars)
yDirected by Ira Sachs. With Michael Barbieri, Theo Taplitz, Jennifer Ehle, Paula Garcia, and Greg Kinnear. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
yRunning time: 1 hour, 25 mins.
yParent's guide: PG (adult themes).
yPlaying at: Ritz Five.