2016 Chicago Critics Film Festival selection


Celebrated director Ira Sachs channels a shade of William Shakespeare with his latest film "Little Men."  An often-repeated quote from Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" reads "the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children."  Sachs puts a beautiful spin on that notion using modern-day Brooklyn, two struggling families from different backgrounds, and a blossoming friendship characterized by two terrific debuting teen actors.  "Little Men" may be small in scope, but it speaks volumes in repercussions.

Academy Award nominee Greg Kinnear plays Brian Jardine, a struggling off-Broadway stage actor and playwright married to the working professional Kathy (Jennifer Ehle).  They have one child, an introverted teenage son named Jake (Theo Taplitz).  Brian's father has recently passed away and he and his sister Audrey (Talia Balsam) have inherited the Brooklyn three-flat building their father used to own.  Forced to downsize from their fancier Manhattan address due to financial woes, Brian moves his family into the building's main living space after the funeral.  

The other tenant in the building is the immigrant entrepreneur Leonor Calvelli (Chilean actress Paulina Garcia of "Gloria").  She owns and operates a small, humble dress shop on the street-level floor and has her own teenage son Tony (Michael Barbieri).  She has long maintained her store through a grandfathered discount lease she negotiated with Brian's late father.  Looking to maximize proper and requisite ownership earnings in the gentrified neighborhood, Audrey and Brian heavily weigh the decision to raise Leonor's outdated lease in the building.   Leonor and her legal friend Hernan (Alfred Molina) know this likelihood is coming and know she can't afford any raise.  She becomes evasive and standoffish with Brian, citing troubling hints of a deeper history of friendship, trust, arrangements, and understandings between her and his father when Brian was not around during his final years of failing health.

In a beautifully positioned vantage point, all of this portending in "Little Men" is mostly viewed through the eyes of the two boys, Jake and Tony.  New neighbors with similar artistic and creative interests, the two become fast friends.  They shoulder the teenage stress of fitting in against the social persecution of homophobic epithets that come from being boys siding with theater over athletics.  Both are targeting earning admission into an expensive specialized performing arts school next fall.  Their friendship and academic goals teeter on the crumbling and increasingly contentious relationship between Brian and Leonor.

Bathed in summer sunlight and a quaint musical score from Dickon Hinchliffe, "Little Men" uses the confidence-building and positive growth of Jake and Tony's kinship to mask the mistakes being made by the adults, which, stylistically, always seem to occur indoors or at night.  Another brilliant balance in Sachs' film is the guarded and mainly faintly-spoken emotions of the adults juxtaposed against the freeing and outward personal expression of the boys.  The bursts of spark flow against the cold realities with ease and a smooth passage of time.  The exposition is light, allowing us to read and react rather than predict.  The film swings a soft stick that lacks the next level of consequence or dramatic heft, but the delivery is rightly careful and neat.

With its temperate tone, the backbone of "Little Men" becomes performance.  This is easily the best Greg Kinnear has been in years, channeling the accurate plight of a struggling artist and beleaguered patriarch.  Paulina Garcia shows her mastery of sublime nuance.  Her role could have easily been built as the secret-divulging dealer of shocks and showiness.  Instead, she leaves it all to suggestion and body language.  She can tell more in the procurement, lighting, and first drag of a cigarette than larger statures with grand speeches.

The adults are fine, but "Little Men" crumbles without the impressive newcomer performances of Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri.  After only meeting briefly in limited rehearsals, their resulting shared scenes exude a natural, unforced quality.  Their interactions, connections, and teenage musings feel genuine and convincing on every level.  They are the core and crux that ensnares your interest over the parents.  You want to see how they are going to turn our more than some building lease, making Sachs's film a better-than-modest success.  Keep an eye on those two kids.  They're marked for future success and you'll be seeing them again.

LESSON #1: THE WAVERING FAIRNESS OF GENTRIFICATION-- The central conflict of this film comes from the transitioning of this Brooklyn neighborhood.  A dress shop like Leonor's is an antiquated dinosaur, even though that's her slice of the American Dream.  If it wasn't for the friendly deal from Brian's father, she would have been out of business years ago.  Brian, coming down from a loftier place, is fully aware of the money being the bottom line and how Leonor's shop is a lost cause.  In this kind of modernizing and gentrification, someone has to lose, which never seems fair.  

LESSON #2: TWO CASES OF ABSENTEE FATHERS-- The burgeoning independence of Tony and Jake come from absentee fathers in one shape or form.  Tony's father is working overseas in Africa and may never return to Leonor.  Brian's focus on his career has him distant and estranged from Jake.  Now that they are in their formative teen years on the edge of manhood, both boys are finding their expressive voice without active fathers and are getting to the point of speaking out more with that voice. 

LESSON #3: THE IMPACT OF PARENTAL DECISIONS ON THEIR CHILDREN-- Beginning with Brian's father saddling him with this building and its issues, "Little Men" is a reflective piece of filmmaking where the struggles of adults are digested and filtered by children.  Echoing that Shakespearean comparison, the decisions being wrestled by Brian and Leonor have implications on the futures of Jake and Tony.  Sometimes the parents are aware of that fact and other times their own interests are taking precedence.