Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Ira Sachs | Little Men

losing it
by Douglas Messerli

Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias (screenplay), Ira Sachs Little Men / 2016

Through the past decade Ira Sachs has made a movie about every 2 years (with the exception of five years between Married Life and Keep the Lights On), each one better, or at least as good, as the one before it. Little Men seems to me to the apotheosis of his thematic concerns and his quiet, melodramatic style—and I mean that in the best sense of that word, in the way that one can describe the films of Douglas Sirk as melodramas, dramas of human feeling.
     The specific issue here, as many critics have noted, is loss, in particular urban loss. What is being lost in vibrant cities as they become overwhelmingly a space for the young, predominantly white rich, is the question behind his last two films, along with the social and personal losses that come along with those changes. Although Sachs has generally been focused on New York, this new film and his last, Love Is Strange, might easily have been filmed in San Francisco, Seattle, or even the more culturally diverse Los Angeles.
      Clearly Brian Jardine (Greg Kinnear) has had his share of losses: his father has just died as the movie opens, and as an actor a once promising career has gone nowhere; he hardly makes enough money to pay the bills. Although he cannot quite bring himself to admit it, he is embarrassed by relying on his wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), a psychotherapist, for his small family’s survival. And he probably has visited his father so little during his life because of that very fact (we later discover that his father had refused to attend family events because they were paid for by Kathy, not his son). Sachs reveals all of this in a few seconds when, taking down the garbage after a low-keyed memorial gathering in their father’s Brooklyn brownstone, Brian breaks down into sobs. What’s more, he must face the fact that, as we see in his portrayal of Trigorin in Chekhov’s The Seagull in an off-off Broadway theater, that he is simply not a great actor.
      Kathy, as the breadwinner, has lost her youth, and is now losing customers. In short, the Jardines are in financial duress, and are delighted to leave Manhattan by moving into the dead father’s brownstone.
     The building also contains a rent-paying dress shop, run by a former Chilean seamstress, Leonor Calvelli (Paulina García). However, the rent she pays is incredibly low given the recent gentrification of the neighborhood. Brian’s father, knowing that her business brought in very little, kept the rent low, and sought out the strong-willed woman as a friend and confident. Leonor’s husband is seemingly on a permanent trip to Angola, where we never discover what he is doing—except as Leonor’s son Tony (Michael Barbieri) imaginatively speculates, he is on an endless safari. He too, has lost his father, which he admits at first hurt him, but the fact of which he has now assimilated.
     This tiny family of two suffers the loss of income which might help them to survive. And now that there is a new landlord, Leonor sniffs out the future like a lioness determined to protect the only things she has left in her life: her hard work and her love for her talented son.
     At the center of this tale, however, are the “little men,” the two boys, the Jardine’s son, Jake (Theo Taplitz)—an introverted, almost speechless young man who wants to be a visual artist—and Tony, a rather fearless boy who wishes to become an actor in the vein of Al Pacino or Robert De Niro. They are both 13, and they bond almost immediately upon encountering one another.
     Sachs is careful not to describe their relationship as having anything to do with sex or real love, but we only have to watch the soulful stares of Jake upon his new-found friend, or to see the boys racing through the Brooklyn streets together, Tony on a foot-scooter and Jake roller-blade skating slightly behind or aside him to know that these kids share something special together. If they are opposites, together they reinforce one another as yin and yang. Both want to be able to attend the arts school Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School. And both immediately are beloved by each other’s parents allowing them to share meals and weekly sleep-overs.
    If the fast-talking Tony (in one wonderful scene he even talks down his acting teacher in a theater exercise) also plays sports and is attracted to a girl, we know that the shy Jake is focused only on Tony and his own art. Sachs says nothing else about the sexual interests, but as we all know of boys at their age, it would come of no surprise if they might also be exploring one another’s bodies. If nothing else, their friendship is, at this moment, at the center of their lives. And when a fellow school mate hints at Jake’s possible homosexuality (“he wears dresses at home,” taunts the boy), Tony slugs him, receiving a beating in return. These little men might have become friends for life—if it weren’t for the insensitivity and class differences of their parents.
    Prodded by both his wife and his obviously greedy sister (Talia Balsam) (“What am I getting out of this?” she laments), Brian determines to triple Leonor’s rent, a sum she simply cannot pay. She, in turn, battles him back, refusing to even read his new rental agreement and goading him with stories from his father’s mouth. She even advertises for new help. As film critic Sheila O’Malley writes: “She's terrifying. She's terrified. When she crushes her cigarette out on the sidewalk, you can picture Brian and Kathy's faces underneath her shoe. She is not a villain. She is fighting for her life.”
     When the little men awaken from their rapture to realize what is happening, they determine to enact a kind of passive aggression, both refusing to speak to their parents. But when it becomes clear that Leonor will be evicted, losing her only possibility of income, Jake breaks his silence beseeching his parents to change their tactics.
       It is too late, and regret is all any of these figures have left. In the last scene we see the painful isolation, once again, of Jake, now sporting a ponytail, on a visit to an art museum where he is sketching a painting, the traditional way in which artists hone their own craft. Across the way, he suddenly spots Tony with a group of other students viewing the art. For a moment he rises to get a better glimpse, but as Tony moves away with the others, Jake returns to his floor-bound location, focusing on the only thing he now has left, his art.
      The terrible feeling at the bottom of our stomachs as we leave the theater is that both boys may have lost, in the severing of their bond, almost everything except their personal imaginative desires. Will they, like Leonor and Brian, similarly be failures in their chosen endeavors? That, we can never know. We can only hope not. Or let me say, we can only believe that they may find the happiness that has so eluded the bigger men and women around them.
       The acting in this film is as excellent as the direction, and the music by Dickon Hinchliffe is a delightful counterpoint to the sadness of the film’s subject. This is a movie I might like to own to be able to see it again and again.

Los Angeles, October 4, 2016

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