“Little Men” is, at its heart, a story of friendship. But besides only this, there are also pretty relevant and heavy themes which permeate the film’s atmosphere. Classism, ethics, and the extent of personal relationships all come into play.
After Brian Jardine’s (Greg Kinnear) father passes away, the often unemployed actor, his wife, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), and son, Jake (Theo Taplitz) move from Manhattan to Brooklyn. It’s in the new house that Jake befriends Tony Calvelli (Michael Barbieri), the son of the shop owner next door, Leonor (Paulina García). Leonor was friends with Jake’s late grandfather and, as their neighborhood has changed over the years (as in, it’s become more gentrified), rent has gone up, but Jake’s grandfather had always insisted that Leonor keep the shop open, not increasing her rent.
All that changes when Brian, who’s financially reliant on Kathy because his job doesn’t offer a steady income, drafts up a contract for the shop’s lease. The increase is much, much higher than she is able to pay. However, Brian tries to explain to her that his family needs the money as well. It isn’t an easy situation and as tensions between Brian and Leonor grows, the bond between Jake and Michael remains as tight as ever. But will they continue to be friends if Leonor loses the shop?
“Little Men” is primarily from the perspective of Jake and Michael. They’re young and, as their friendship grows and they get closer, their parents’ situation becomes more confusing for them. This is especially so for Jake because he never really had any friends to begin with and he doesn’t want to lose Michael. Also, as the son of two Caucasian parents vs. Michael and Leonor, who are Hispanic, Jake can’t wrap his head around why his parents just can’t cut Leonor some slack.
After all, aren’t they all supposed to be getting along? Why does his dad have to treat Leonor the way he does? If Michael moves, he’ll no longer get to see him as often, if at all. For Michael, on the other hand, his upbringing is different, so his perspective and approach to the situation almost counteracts that of Jake. He understands it a bit more, almost expects it. And this realization from the audience is quite sad. The fact that this film so closely resembles the socio-economics of our real world makes it immensely more powerful and poignant.
Director and co-writer Ira Sachs treats the situation, and the characters, with respect. Around halfway through, it’s clear that this story will not have a happy ending. It’s all unfair, but at least Sachs handles it carefully, aware enough to draw attention to the underlying depth of the issues at hand, but is sure not to demonize one over the other. “Little Men” is able to achieve a balance between youth idealism, optimism, and untainted friendship with adult complications, classism, socioeconomic bias, and so on. At face value, the film doesn’t look to offer much, but as the movie goes on and progresses, it’s the interactions that drive the story and breakthrough.
"Little Men" is able to achieve a balance between youth idealism, optimism, and untainted friendship with adult complications, classism, and socioeconomic bias.