Anyone thinking of making movies would be wise to watch the work of Ira Sachs, which are studies in simplicity that yield such rich rewards. His latest, “Little Men” is no exception, starting as many of his films have at a social gathering, this time a wake for Max, an unseen presence who lingers over the story’s entirety. His son Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Brian’s wife (Jennifer Ehle) dutifully accept condolences, but the real action happens just before when their son Jacob (Theo Taplitz) first meets and quickly befriends Antonio (Michael Barbieri), the son of Leonor (Paulina Garcia), a longtime tenant in the building owned by Max, who operates a dress shop. Almost instantaneously, the boys bond over video games and make plans to attend an acting workshop, which pleases Brian to no end as an actor himself who also hopes such activities will take his son’s mind off his grandfather, but soon enough Brian faces a difficult decision after learning Leonor pays a pittance in rent for her shop that could fetch a fortune in the newly gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood, money that Brian and his sister Audrey (Talia Balsam) could use.
The adult drama becomes juicy enough in “Little Men,” but as suggested by its title, Sachs gives far more time to the development of the two boys, whose friendship becomes imperiled by their parents’ dispute and take away lessons that can’t be explicitly taught. Like their previous two collaborations “Keep the Lights On” and “Love is Strange,” Sachs and co-screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias precisely modulate how each small step in their relationship leads to the next – the minor swipes taken at them at school by unkind teachers or classmates that shape an us-against-the-world mentality, the dream of Antonio to go to a Performing Arts high school where Jacob starts to think he could finally fit in, or the eventual vow of silence both take towards their parents in an effort to possibly force a resolution. Taplitz and Barbieri are both extraordinarily good as the reserved Jacob and the gregarious Antonio, their natural yin-and-yang energy a joy to watch but even more impressive as the characters start to see their parents as fallible people for the first time.
Sachs and Zacharias fold in themes of white privilege and the notion of what actually constitutes a family seamlessly into the escalating conflict between Brian and Leonor and between the elegant performances from Kinnear and Garcia and the compassion that is bestowed upon each by the screenwriters, their feud becomes a dynamic discussion that goes far beyond whether Leonor will keep her shop. As to be expected of a Sachs film, cinematographer Oscar Duran catches it all with a directness that contains a multitude of emotion, each scene masterfully lit and in what’s become a signature for the director, a sense of distance between characters subtly expressed within the frame. Underlined with a subtle, sonorant score from Dickon Hinchcliffe, “Little Men” lyrically unfolds, a further confirmation that Sachs is one of America’s, if not the world’s, great humanist filmmakers.