Gentrification is a global evil, as poor tenants are pushed out of their homes by rich landlords in search of greater profits. Little Men (2016), by the well-regarded American indie director Ira Sachs, isn’t afraid to make that point, even if the theme is somewhat softened by a slew of sympathetic characters who generally want to do the best they can. The film shies away from taking political positions, but still reflects the complex nature of making decisions in the real world.
Like many US indie films, Little Men is more about characters than concepts, conveying its message in microcosm rather than espousing any big ideas about social inequality. Although all the characters get a chance to weigh in, the story’s mainly told through the eyes of two 13-year-old boys.
When the epicene Jake’s (Theo Taplitz) middle-class family move into the apartment of his dead grandfather, the shy boy is enlivened by the friendship of the outspoken Tony (Michael Barbieri), whose Chilean mother rents the store downstairs. Trouble arises when Jake’s pleasant but weak-willed father, Brian (Greg Kinnear; As Good as It Gets), is persuaded by his sister to raise the rent on the store to a level that Tony’s seamstress mum can’t afford. The two boys try to ride out an increasingly unpleasant situation, but the hard realities that arise are difficult to surmount.
Sachs, who lives in New York, chose to film in parts of Brooklyn, and locations include Williamsburg, which is well known for gentrification. This brings an air of authenticity to the work. Although it’s a New York story, it’s actually based on a situation taken from co-scriptwriter Mauricio Zacharias’ own family life in Brazil – his father experienced similar circumstances to those Brian faces.
Sachs wanted to test the notion that ethical principles crumble in the face of life’s difficulties, especially if financial again is involved. Although it incorporates some of the irritating navel-gazing that blights contemporary US indie films, Little Men does succeed in making this point without hammering it home.
Films such as 2014’s Love is Strange, an ensemble piece about gay couples, highlighted Sachs’ and Zacharias’ detailed attention to the minutiae of their characters’ lives, and that approach is furthered here. The relationship between the two boys, Jake’s father and Tony’s mum, is at the heart of the film; the adults are far from perfect, and seem as uncertain as the children.
That humanity gives the film its appeal. But the more politically minded might prefer the brutality of John Sayles’ gentrification-by-arson drama City of Hope.
Little Men will be screened on September 24 and October 1 at PALACE ifc, in Central, as part of the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.