Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 05, 2016 5:46 am 
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In Ira Sachs' Little Men, we're asked to shed tears of sympathy for inheritors of property in Brooklyn who feel forced to evict a poor Latina woman from a dress shop she has occupied for years. Along the way, the warm new friendship of two artistic 13-year-old boys from the two families is a casualty. It's hard not to agree with David Schindel of The Film Stage who says in his Sundance review that why this story "devotes more time to the gentrifiers than the displaced is a mystery," and that everything might have gone better if it had "leaned towards the opposite direction."

Sachs is an original and very personal filmmaker whose work by now merits close attention, and in both human and artistic terms, this is the most important new movie to open this week. But after the mastery of his Love Is Strange and emotional complexity of his preceding Keep the Lights On, Little Men, while still having the gentle humanistic touch, is a little bit of a letdown. The acting here is fine, by the boys especially, but not quite as vibrant and memorable as in the last two of Sachs' films. Only the well-known Chilean actress Paulina García, as Leonor, the lady (and mother) who gets evicted from her shop, makes us feel an edge of pain. The movie lags at times, especially in the slow lead-up to where the trouble starts: as Schindel says what may pass for "effortlessness" in the film may feel on closer scrutiny more like"a simple lack of effort."

The action begins with a funeral in Brooklyn, where earnest and amiable loser Brian Jardine (Greg Kinnear), has just inherited from his late father a roomy apartment and a shop, the latter run by Leonor, in what's becoming a trendy neighborhood. Brian is an aspiring actor who hasn't made any money in years and is supported by his wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), a psychotherapist. When they move over from Manhattan their son Jake (Theo Taplitz) quickly becomes fast friends with Leonor's son Tony (Michael Barbieri). Tony's father is away in Africa as a nurse for the UN and Leonor is often with her older "friend" (Alfred Molina of Love Is Strange again, but in a relatively minor role).

Maybe Tony and Jake are linked by essentially absent fathers, since Jake's, who's perpetually studying acting, isn't one he can brag about, and may suffer a touch of emasculation. But the volatile, more ethnic, less highbrow Tony is drawn to Jake's dad because he wants to become an actor. And both boys are linked by wanting to get into the same Manhattan LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts; Jake is an aspiring artist, always drawing and painting. We hear about his yellow stars in a green sky; we never see his work. We do see Tony in acting class, in an intense reactive scene with Michael Barbieri's actual acting teacher. This is surely the shy Jake's first real friend, and it's a beautiful friendship for both the boys almost as intense as a romance, and its interruption is a tragedy.

When Tony and Jake find out their parents, Jake's dad and Tony's mom, are fighting over a lease, they get angry and shut down, refusing to talk - even after Brian's debut, in a role at last, in an off Broadway production of Chekhov's The Seagull. This prompts the disgruntled Brian to make his meanest remark, predicting Tony won't get into the LaGuardia School.

We must shed crocodile tears for Brian: his sister Audrey (Talia Balsam) also inherited, and is clamoring to receive income from the currently undervalued shop property. But there is nothing much to like about Brian, Audrey, or Kathy.

Meanwhile in repeated meetings with Brian in which he is not able to communicate, Lionor makes clear that she was closer to his father than he was, and that his father wanted her to remain in the shop. But he didn't provide for that in his will. It's one of the film's clammiest moments when Kathy bends down to eye-level with Leonor at her sewing machine to declare she's trained also in "conflict resolution," and so hopes to help. With what? Persuading Leonor to evacuate the shop with more alacrity?

After the boys find out it's over, and Jake weeps and wishes they could go back to Manhattan and be near the LaGuardia School, we see the shop, empty. And - shockingly - except for a brief fast-forward (adroitly shot) glimpse of Tony seen by Jake from afar, that's the last we see of gentrification's victims, who up to now have arguably seemed more vital than the gentrifiers. These two main characters are just dropped, as if tossed on the rubbish heap.

Could the relationship between Tony and Jake have been saved? The story implies that it could not. Perhaps we're wrong even to think so. The two boys become not star-crossed lovers but star-crossed pals. At their age perhaps it doesn't matter, or matters less. They move on. But what about Leonor? What happens to her, without her shop?

Gay filmmaker Sachs plays with sexuality lightly, suggesting in a couple scenes that Jake may be gay, and Tony gets beaten up at his Catholic school standing up for him. Sachs is vaguer about Jewishness in Jake's family. Apparently Kinnear in real life is Jewish: but who would have guessed? Sach's co-writer Mauricio Zacharias of Madame Satã, collaborating for the third time, contributes some Spanish dialogue between Molina and García. The big touch, which stands even if one leaves the movie frustrated, is the way it gives the friendship of two boys center stage, when that stage is the grand one of New York City, and the friendship is strong enough for the boys to bond, for a while at least, against their parents. And of course Sachs' and Zacharias' speciality is things in life that go awry, and their mastery lies in a mosaic of small specific touches.

It's an ironic injustice of the film that Tony gets stuck behind in Catholic school, the spinelessly cruel Brian's cruel remark coming true, though Barbieri seems the better actor, or at least the more volatile and intense one (Taplitz has quiet soulfulness and poise). As Peter Debruge points out in his Variety review, "in real life, Barbieri has Pacino’s charisma, plus a New York Italian accent thicker than Stallone’s."

Little Men, 85 mins., debuted at Sundance. 22 other festivals, including Berlin, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco. US theatrical release 5 Aug. 2016 in NYC at Elinor Bunin Monroe Theater, Lincoln Center; and IFC Center. Coming in France and the UK 21 and 25 Sept. respectively.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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