The most quietly devastating moment in Little Men, Ira Sachs’ latest, features little more than a young teenager rollerblading through the Bronx, alone. We’ve seen Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) skate this same route twice before – but each time in the company of his unlikely friend Tony Calvelli (Michael Barbieri). But now forces beyond their control, and understanding, have separated them, and we see Jake skate along alone, Sachs purposefully echoing earlier visual and auditory cues, their similarity underscoring the glaring absence. It’s a short scene, barely a minute, and mostly inconsequential to the plot, but as potent a depiction of loneliness as cinema has managed so far in 2016.
Let’s rewind. Jake and his parents (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle) have moved from Manhattan to the Bronx, taking up residence in the apartment left absent following the death of Jake’s grandfather. Tony is the son of the Chilean dressmaker (Paulina García) who runs the shop downstairs. A friend of Jake’s grandfather, she’s enjoyed budget rents for years. But his parents have bills to pay, and the Bronx is a changing neighbourhood, and you can see where this is going.
Jake and Tony strike up a quick friendship, but it’s one where their similarities are at first less apparent than their differences. Jake is quiet, awkward, and mannered, head in the clouds and his sketchbook. Tony is brash and self-assured, and his almost comically deep voice and thick Bronx accent highlight the different worlds the two come from.
Sachs gently explored class and gentrification in his powerful previous feature Love Is Strange, but here it takes a prominent role. The boys’ parents’ dispute over rents and leases is constantly underscored by reminders that “the neighbourhood is changing,” the implication — occasionally made explicit — that rich white people are pricing out families who’ve lived there for generations. Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias find room for complexity though, and the Jardines aren’t clear-cut villains. They have their own debts, and bills to pay — even if it’s because Jake’s dad enjoys the luxury of a virtually unpaid acting career.
Most of all, the film explores the human cost of the crisis, as Jake and Tony’s friendship is threatened by a class dynamic they don’t understand and never agreed to. That they pay the price without the responsibility is a reflection of their shifting relationship with adulthood. Jake’s parents talk to him as if he’s an adult, on equal footing, but by neglecting to involve him in the decision-making they reveal how unequal he really is. That’s only emphasised when he and Tony stop talking to their parents in a childish act of protest, or visit a matinee tween dance, the extended neon-lit sequence a purposeful parody of the nightclub, complete with bleary-eyed subway journey home — except here the daylight pouring through the windows isn’t from dawn, it’s because it isn’t even their dinnertime yet.
Sachs approaches all of this volatile material with a gentle hand, and Little Men is a quiet, unassuming film. There aren’t any explosive fights, and few emotional outbursts – there’s barely even a climax. It can make the film challenging, frustrating even, but it rewards those willing to slow down and take it on its own merits. Sachs doesn’t need violent drama to make his point. Instead there are little moments that say much more, like a quiet young boy from Manhattan, rollerblading through the Bronx on his own.
Words by Dominic Preston