The 2016 Indy Film Fest kicked off tonight at the Indianapolis Museum of Art's Toby Theatre with a screening of the upcoming Magnolia Pictures release Little Men, which is not, I should stress, a gender reversal based upon a certain classical and beloved novel. Instead, it's the latest film from Ira Sachs (Love is Strange, Keep the Lights On) and is further proof that Sachs is one of contemporary cinema's finest directors of restrained humanity and small intimacies.
With some similarities to his last film, the extraordinary Love is Strange, Little Men tells the story of Jake (Theo Taplitz), who after the death of his grandfather joins his parents, Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) in moving into the grandfather's now vacant apartment that sits atop a dress shop owned by Leonor (Paulina Garcia), an old friend of the grandfather's. Initially, all is well. Jake becomes fast friends with Leonor's son, Tony (Michael Barbieri), a far more confident lad yet similar in the sense that the two artistically inclined boys aspire to attend the La Guardia Performing Arts High School. While their friendship continues to blossom, things become strained between the "adults" when Brian takes step to increase the rent on the space housing the dress shop.
We have certainly seen coming-of-age films before. We have seen films about divorce or, in this case, a separation of sorts before. I'm not sure we've actually seen a film like Little Men, though certainly elements of the story will feel familiar.
Greg Kinnear, an Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actor in 1998 for As Good As It Gets, has never really been much better than he is in Little Men. Kinnear's Brian is an exhausted figure of a man, both emotionally and physically. A failing actor and father/husband, Brian wears a deep resignation even in the film's silences. It is in these silences, perhaps, where Sachs most succeeds in bringing the film's emotional resonance to life and Kinnear is perfectly cast who is so completely on the edge of an emotional break much of the time that it is a psychological relief for the audience when he finally, at least fleetingly, purges some of what's bottled up inside.
The film's revelatory performances are turned in by Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri whose tremendously complex performances far transcend their young years. Despite their differences, there's a cohesiveness between them that is remarkable and an energy that truly sparks the entire film. Barbieri gives a more suave, smooth performance indicating a greater degree of confidence and swagger, while Taplitz serves up a more grounded, earthy performance that may be less confident yet is no less passionate. As Leonor, Paulina Garcia displays a growing anger, yet not the anger that is so often dramatized in Hollywood but the slow, seething anger that plays out less dramatically but is no less impactful. Garcia's is a finely nuanced, disciplined performance that lingers in your psyche' long after the film.
Sachs wrote the script with frequent collaborator Mauricio Zacharias and it is clear that the two trust each other's instincts. All of the core characters are developed quite beautifully, yet it is in those silent spaces that the characters say the most. This is especially true between Theo and Tony.
Alfred Molina shows up in what almost amounts to a cameo, though it's a beautiful performance that adds much to the film.
Sachs, to his credit, takes Little Men in directions not always expected and that's a tremendous positive for a film that feels familiar but really isn't familiar. Little Men isn't necessarily about little things. It's about friendship and family and loyalty and growing up, which our two youngsters seem to have mastered far moreso than the adults that surround them. It's a film that has anger, but it's natural anger and not the anger we've come to expect from histrionic Hollywood movies.
Little Men is a beautiful way to kick off the 2016 Indy Film Fest, a growing festival that continues to be run by an all-volunteer, fiercely loyal staff whose commitment ot the Indy and the indie film scene is undeniable. If you didn't get a chance to see tonight's screening, be sure to check out Little Men when it hits the arthouse circuit. For more information on Indy Film Fest, visit IndyFilmFest.org.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic