The German historical drama The Lives of Others won the Academy Award for best foreign language film in 2006, and deservedly so. But Little Men, the new indie gem from director Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange), is more deserving of the 2006 film's title. In its most essential mode, this is what cinema provides: a sustained gaze into the lives of others.
The story of Little Men is simple enough. When his grandfather passes away, thirteen-year-old aspiring artist Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) moves into the vacated Brooklyn brownstone with his family. Jake's dad, Brian (Greg Kinnear), is a struggling actor. His mom, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), is a psychotherapist and the family breadwinner. Money is tight.
The Jardines' new home includes a downstairs storefront, leased by Chilean dressmaker Leonor (Paulina Garcia) and her middle-school son, Tony (Michael Barbieri). The boys become fast friends as the adults navigate an uncomfortable situation with the lease and a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. In short, the Jardines need to raise the rent, and Leonor can't afford it.
Little Men is the kind of movie that requires and rewards attention. It's extremely quiet, carefully observed, and beautifully acted. Kinnear is especially good, with his weary eyes and a fragile smile forever on the edge of collapse. He plays Brian as a kindhearted but impotent man in crisis, coming to accept that sorrow is now a constant companion. As the seemingly victimized tenant, Garcia cuts against the grain with some finely honed emotional cruelty. She bites.
The teenagers' story, meanwhile, is held in perfect tension against the adult drama. Jake and Tony form that deep, instinctive friendship specific to adolescent boys. They're old enough to know love but haven't yet learned that, as American men, they must sublimate their feelings. Their loyalty is fierce. When the adults' stupid money problems threaten to separate them, the boys fight back as best they can.
The performances, without exception, are piercingly intimate. Watching the scenes with the adults, I felt voyeuristic and even a little guilty, somehow, as if I were spying on my neighbors. That's a testament to the actors, but also to Sachs. His direction is so natural, so subtle, that it renders virtually invisible those layers of filmmaking artifice we've come to accept. You lose yourself in these people and their stories, and only after the credits roll do you remember you've been watching performers in carefully composed images.
When a filmmaker can achieve this, it's something like magic. Roger Ebert once described the movies as a machine that generates empathy, and Little Men is a perfect example. It's an opportunity to shift your perspective for a couple of hours, into the lives of others.
Editor's note: The local release of Little Men, which had been scheduled for August 26, was delayed until September 9 as this issue went to press.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Upstairs Downstairs"