When adults talk about how “complicated” life is, they’re almost always talking about money, whether or not they realize it. And while it seems obvious that money has a powerful influence on our lives, Little Men, the latest film from director Ira Sachs, gives a face to the otherwise impersonal specter of economics. (He did the same thing, under different circumstances, in 2014's Love is Strange.) This delightful, sad, yet somehow hopeful film explores the budding friendship between Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), two middle-school boys growing up in Brooklyn, and how the money troubles of Jake’s parents drive a wedge between their two families. The boys meet because Jake’s parents have inherited an apartment above Tony’s mother’s dress shop. Both the apartment and the shop belonged to Jake’s grandfather, and Jake’s parents, Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), are forced to triple the rent to help them stay afloat financially. (Brian is an actor, and he makes very little money, so Kathy, a therapist, provides most of the family’s income.)
I’m not an expert on the cost of living in New York, but it’s easy to imagine that when it comes to raising a family in the city, two incomes are better than one. And while Kathy is supportive of Brian’s acting career, Brian feels guilty about not contributing financially. Upping the rent on the shop will help him appease a certain amount of unaddressed inferiority he feels. Leonor (Pauline Garcia), Tony’s mother, takes an angry jab at Brian late in the film: “Your father was embarrassed that everything in your house was paid for by your wife.” Leonor cannot afford the rent increase, and will not only have to close her shop, but suffer financially, because Jake’s grandfather kept the rent low as a token of friendship to her.
Afraid afraid of becoming destitute, Leonor tries repeatedly to remind Brian of how much she meant to his father, that she visited him daily, and spent more time with him than his own children. Kathy tries to reassure Leonor: “We’re not the rich people moving into the neighborhood; we’re struggling too.” But a lesser form of greed, one forged out of the desire for contentment and security, does motivate them, even if they aren’t willing to admit it.
The problems of the adults, while complicated, seem solvable, even petty, in light of their boys’ friendship. Friendship, when you’re 12 or 13, is often both elusive and ephemeral. Kids in middle school are still kids, just on the cusp of adolescence, and they haven’t totally been funneled into the groups they will identify with in high school. The friendship between Jake and Tony is delightful to behold: Tony encourages Jake in his artistic ambitions, and Jake encourages Tony’s wishes to become an actor. Both of them talk about going to an arts-centered public school next year, and Tony even takes some acting classes. (There’s a wonderful scene between Tony and an acting teacher in his 50s, both of them repeating various lines with increased emotional intensity, and it’s clear that acting thrills Tony: he comes alive as he shouts at his instructor, who is himself buoyed by Tony's enthusiasm.)
If Hollywood during the Golden Age of the 40s and 50s nurtured unrealistic ideals, and hocked silver linings like a used car salesman, then surely we’ve entered a new age of cynical honesty about “following your dreams.” Brian warns Jake about the pitfalls of the artistic life. You don’t always find success, and not every talented person is made to be a real artist. But Brian’s advice to Jake rings true, and feels like advice you could actually give someone: Don’t practice too hard; trust your natural abilities; know when to relax and when to work hard. It’s the balance of the two that determines who can succeed and who cannot. Brian himself is living proof that our dreams often elude; and yet he seems okay with it. His life hasn't ended because he's not a famous movie star.
Little Men also maintains that New York isn’t just a mecca for idealistic painters and actors and writers to come and find success. That’s not the reality for everyone. New York may be the city where those aspirations can be realized, but it is also a halfway house full of broken dreams, unfulfilled wishes, altered plans, and reality checks. And yet, in the midst of all the struggles to succeed and to find happiness, and the concerns about money, and the possibility that your plans might not work out the way you want them to, there are friendships, however fleeting, that sustain us, that enable us to dance in the minefields of life. For what seems like a mere moment, Jake and Tony get to share in each other’s wonderful, goofy, starry-eyed boyhood. And that is what makes Little Men not just a realistic look at growing up and finding yourself, but a celebration of the mixed bag that is life: It's a surprising movie, one that doesn't provide easy answers or convenient resolutions, and I loved every minute of it.