In Ira Sachs’s Little Men (out now in limited release around Australia), the hefty task of playing progress is placed on the skinny shoulders of two 13-year-olds. Tony (Michael Barbieri) is a mini “you talkin to me?” Robert De Niro with a career aspiration to match (acting), still growing into his swagger. Jake (Theo Taplitz) is a shy, sensitive artist, his personality matched by Tony’s braggadocio. The old world is Tony’s mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia)’s shop, rented to her by Jake’s recently deceased grandfather at a rate that hasn’t changed in years as Brooklyn has grown up and out around it. The new world is upstairs, where Jake and his parents (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle) move in and his father wants so raise the shop’s rent so Leonor cannot afford it. Caught in between it all are Tony and Jake, their friendship growing as the adults get increasingly bitter.
It’s an easy metaphor and one that makes for an out-of-the-mouths-of-babes approach to criticising gentrification, mixing the inching reality associated with early teendom to soften it. Jake and Tony of course handle the situation much better than the adults around them, asking and begging why a compromise can’t be met. It’s Sachs’s easy humanity that makes the denouement moving, watching Jake and Tony’s friendship (and Taplitz and Barbieri’s chemistry) be forged over summer acting classes, video games, and discos that offer a small break from reality. But Jake’s father is a struggling actor who’s currently in The Seagull, which should give enough of a harbinger for how the building is another character in itself, and the obvious way Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias characterise it.”It’s good to throw stuff out. It’s hard at first, but then it gets easy,” Jake’s father says after throwing out some of his drawings. “The new ones will never be as good,” Jake replies. Eventually, it’ll all just be a distant memory.