It’s no secret that Ira Sachs (“Love is Strange”) has a gift for emotional realism. Never has that been more apparent than in his latest film, “Little Men,” which follows the budding friendship between Tony Calvelli (newcomer Michael Barbieri) and Jake Jardine (newcomer Theo Taplitz). The two meet at Jake’s grandfather’s funeral — Tony’s mom owns the store beneath the grandfather’s apartment — and instantly become inseparable.
The friendship is treated with a patience rarely seen in film. The young men are given plenty of screen time to just be together. Long shots of the two rollerblading, sitting, standing, walking and doing almost anything else thirteen-year-old boys do in silence follow most scenes of dialogue. Those stretches of silence are perhaps the film’s strongest moments. Sachs shows what friendship looks like without letting the audience in on its secrets and specificities.
This gentle treatment of adolescence extends to all the children in the film. The kids in Tony and Jake’s acting class pulse with the same level of realism. In an especially lifelike (and very funny) moment, one of the girls tells Tony that she’s really “into older guys” when he asks her to dance. These small celebrations of the everyday are what make the film as realistic and powerful as it is.
The film misses out every moment that it chooses not to spend with its two young leads. The parallel plot of the squabble between the Jardines and Leonor (Paulina García, “Gloria”), Tony’s mother, is not only less compelling, it’s poorly executed. Brian, Jake’s father, is played unconvincingly by resident indie dad Greg Kinnear (“Little Miss Sunshine”). He and Lenore (Paulina Garcia, “Narcos”) navigate a legal mess with a lack of passion that borders on boredom. This dryness is only made more apparent when compared to the pure vitality that threatens to break through the screen whenever either of their sons are on camera.
As fate would have it, the two little men are not allowed to be best friends forever. Towards the end of the film, the parental subplot takes over. Rents and voices are raised, and Lenore must close up her shop. Without the common ground of the store, the boys drift away from each other.
The boys’ breakup itself is raw and heartbreaking — never more so than when Jake tries to rollerblade back to Manhattan. But its power and poignancy is undercut by the slog of legal narrative required to reach that moment.
Keeping with the trend of Sachs’s other films, a gay subtext could be detected in Jake and Tony’s friendship. But keeping in the reality of the simultaneous sexuality and sexlessness of thirteen-year-olds, the film decides to hint rather than commit — and it’s better for that choice.
Characterized by the most realistic and poignant representations of adolescence in recent history, Sachs’s film is a beautiful ode to the everyday. It’s just a shame “Little Men” isn’t only about its little men.