Little Men

Poor Directing Choices and Uneven Acting Bog Down this Domestic Drama


Premiering at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and selected for inclusion in the 66th Berlin International Film Festival, writer/director Ira Sach’s new film Little Men takes a unique look at neighborhood domestic drama; from the eyes of the adolescents.  Little Men is a small film in both budget ($2 Million) and scope.  Coming in at 85 minutes, only about 2/3rds of the film’s scenes are directly related to plot development.  Sachs dedicates camera time to build the world of Little Men; turning his gaze onto the streets of the film’s Brooklyn neighborhoods.  While effectively used to reinforce the ambience of the film’s setting, it hampers the story’s plot.  At 85 minutes, Little Men is either 20 minutes too long, or 10 pages of script too short.

Making their film debuts, stars Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri play Jake and Tony; two New York teens brought together out of proximity and pulled apart by family strife. Taplitz is the son of Jennifer Ehle and Greg Kinnear’s Kathy and Brian Jardine; a psychologist and struggling theater actor couple who have moved into Brian’s late father’s Brooklyn apartment building after his passing.  Michael Barbieri stars a Tony Calvelli, son of Leonor (Paulina Garcia); a dress-shop owner/tenant on the ground floor of the apartment building Brian Jardine has inherited.  Jake and Tony are different in obvious ways – Jake hoping to enroll at art school in the fall; and Tony a bit more of a ‘boy’s boy’, busying himself at teen dances.  Regardless of their differences, they become fast friends until negotiations fall apart between Brian and Leonor over a new lease agreement; and an eviction now threatens Leonor’s shop.

Both young actors, Taplitz and Barbieri, should be commended for their feature film debut performances, but there is a varying degree of success for the titular ‘Little Men’.  Michael Barbieri comfortably assumes the identity of Tony; the young Brooklyn son of blue-collar immigrants.  He looks and sounds the part with authentic New York dialect and charisma – it works.  He naturally convey the fast-talking, wrong side of the tracks but still earnest Tony.  Theo Taplitz’s Jake is less comfortable in his own skin as he is learning to identify with his more alternative choices of interests than his peers.  Maybe Taplitz plays too on the nose in the role of Jake; but the actor is too timid and weak in the role.  While maybe this was a measured decision by director Ira Sachs, the differences in tone and naturalness for Jake and Tony are so skewed that it more likely shows a contrast in the actors’ amount of on-camera experience and talent.

Little Men is a character study in societal dynamics when tough situations arise.  Ira Sachs rounds out his cast with an able group of veteran actors led by Greg Kinnear’s Brian and Paulina Garcia’s Leonor.  There are no pro- and antagonists here; both Brian and Leonor have their reasons and their sides of the story.  Brian, as the landlord, has a right and financial responsibility to request competitive leasing rates during renewal; and Leonor rightfully feels violated by Brian after his father has purposefully kept the rent artificially economical for her business.

There are issues with the third act of Little Men, surrounding the conclusion of the domestic strife between the Jardine and Calvelli clans. Through the first two acts of the film, Jake and Tony act as dual leads, with the camera seeing the point of view of both young men.  After Leonor’s eventual eviction, suddenly Tony is no longer presented in the film, expect through a brief indirect allusion.  Again, this could be a choice by Mr. Sachs, but ending Tony’s story in this way loses the contextualization of the film’s plot resolution for half of the cast; and will leave audiences scratching their heads.


Scores:

  • Screenwriting: 5/10 – A good premise, but there isn’t enough substance to the script
  • Directing: 7/10 – Builds a strong framework through world building, but poor choices in the third act will leave viewers feeling unresolved
  • Acting: 6/10 – A clear division in competency for the young acting leads

Overall:

6/10 – Writer/director Ira Sachs develops a good premise and films with a eye for detail, but his film Little Men will lose viewers with poor writing, directing, and casting decisions.

 

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