There is hardly a shortage of buddy movies about mismatched men bonding under duress, but films that chart the emotional weather of everyday male friendship are rare. Literature has more to offer, at least as far as boys are concerned. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn have a rich and renewable legacy. And it may be that association that imparts a novelistic vibe to Ira Sachs’s “Little Men.” It’s a subtle movie, alert to the almost imperceptible currents of feeling that pass between its title characters.
They are Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) and Tony Calvelli (Michael Barbieri), two middle schoolers who cross paths in Brooklyn. Jake, pale and reserved, is an exile from Manhattan. His father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), might be described as a struggling actor if it didn’t seem that the fight had mostly gone out of him. He works, but he mostly worries, tries to be a nice guy and feels guilty when he fails at it. Jake’s mother, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), who is a bit more decisive, is a therapist, and her smiling demeanor acts as a shield against the unspoken tensions hovering in the air whenever she and her husband are together.
The family moves into an apartment that used to belong to Brian’s father, whose death is the movie’s precipitating catastrophe. The old man also owned the building where Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina García) runs a dress shop. Jake’s grandfather is recalled as a big-hearted bohemian of the kind that used to be more plentiful in New York. “He loved me,” Leonor says, perhaps hinting that they were lovers but more pointedly explaining why he charged her so little rent. Brian, urged on by his sister, wants to raise it. As the dispute between them escalates, it casts a shadow over Jake’s relationship with Tony.
Sachs holds the adults at arm’s length, declining either to judge them too harshly for their selfishness or to extend them more than minimal sympathy for their difficulties. In other words, “Little Men” is on the side of Jake and Tony, as both a narrative strategy and a moral choice. Their temperaments and backgrounds are different, as are their interests. Jake is a hothouse flower, his artistic talents and sensitivities carefully cultivated by his parents. Tony is more of a free-range kid. He’s gregarious and easygoing and dreams of being an actor. The two boys conceive a plan to apply to a specialized arts high school together.
When parents are around, “Little Men” feels like a modest, precise drama of urban life, but when it follows Tony and Jake, absorbing the loose rhythms of their companionship, the film becomes something richer and harder to classify. It’s a boys adventure story edged with unspoken risks, and the young actors take the kind of chances that their more careful and disciplined elders have been trained to avoid. Sachs, in his last three features — this one, “Love Is Strange” and “Keep the Lights On” — has refined a style of emotional realism that stands out against both the mumbly diffidence and the sociological scorekeeping of too much independent American cinema. “Little Men” only looks like a small movie.
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina García, Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri.
Director: Ira Sachs.
Screenwriters: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 85 minutes. Adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Bill Cosford Cinema.