Netflix UK film review: Little Men
Taplitz and Barbieri9
Kinnear, Ehle and Garcia8
Matthew Turner | On 23, Sep 2016
Director: Ira Sachs
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina García, Michael Barbieri
Watch Little Men online in the UK: Netflix UK / Curzon Home Cinema / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Fans of writer-director Ira Sachs’ previous film, Love Is Strange (which starred John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a together-for-forty-years gay couple forced to sell their beloved New York apartment), will find much to love in his latest feature, Little Men, which, once again, places a New York property dispute at the heart of a compelling human drama.
Set in the present day, the film focuses on Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle, doing another of her flawless American accents), who inherit an apartment in Brooklyn with a downstairs retail space, after Brian’s father dies. It turns out that said space is rented by Chilean single mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia), who runs a local dress shop business and has been paying just a fraction of what the property is worth for several years.
With Brian’s pushy sister (and joint inheritor) Audrey (Talia Balsam) piling on the pressure and their own financial woes swiftly mounting (having already been forced to move out of their New York apartment due to dwindling funds), Brian and Kathy attempt to raise the rent on Leonor’s shop, igniting an angry feud between them. To make matters more complicated, Brian and Kathy’s sensitive and artistic 13-year-old son, Jake (Theo Taplitz), meets Leonor’s son, 13-year-old wannabe actor Tony (Michael Barbieri), and the two quickly become fast friends, both blissfully unaware of the rapidly worsening relationship between their parents.
Although the property dispute forms the backbone of the story (making you wonder just how terrible Sachs’ own experiences are in that area), the script foregrounds the bond between the boys, building tension, as we brace ourselves for the impact the feud will have. The central relationship is beautifully written, conveying the powerful intensity of adolescent friendship (there’s just a hint of desire there too, although it’s never explicitly stated) and layering in several intriguing details, such as the way Tony supports Jake’s artistic leanings or the gradual realisation that both boys experienced agonising loneliness prior to their newfound connection.
Taplitz and Barbieri, both making their feature debuts, are extraordinary finds, the former engagingly empathetic and the latter exuding a Pacino-esque swagger and confidence (as well as an amusingly thick Brooklyn accent) that suggests we’ll be seeing him again sooner rather than later (and, indeed, we will – he’s been cast in Spider-Man: Homecoming).
The adult performances are equally good – Kinnear skilfully conveys the awkwardness of middle-class guilt, as a man torn between honouring his father’s promises and his own encroaching financial disaster, a situation exacerbated by the fact that he’s still a struggling actor, while Kathy works full time as a psychotherapist. Similarly, Paulina Garcia (Gloria, Narcos) is superb as the proud shop-owner, barely keeping her rage in check – the scene where she angrily tells Brian some home truths is painful to watch.
Sachs’ direction is exceptional throughout, amassing a wealth of compelling character detail, as the story moves towards its quietly moving conclusion. The depiction of New York and Brooklyn (seen through the boys’ eyes, as they move through the city) is extremely impressive and the script has some subtle points to make about both the consequences and the inevitability of gentrification. There’s also a terrific, upbeat score from Dickon Hinchliffe.
The result is a sharply observed and quietly moving coming-of-ager, heightened by a pair of powerful debut performances. Highly recommended.
Little Men is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.