Writer-director Ira Sachs was raised in Memphis before moving to New York City, but you can tell he’s a New Yorker now because he’s so preoccupied with real estate. In his acclaimed indie drama Love Is Strange (2014) a longtime gay couple are forced to separate when they lose their condominium in Manhattan, and the pain of longing is only increased by the awkward living arrangements each is forced to make on his own. Now Sachs is back with Little Men, a quiet but engrossing drama about two schoolboys whose friendship is tested by their respective parents’ landlord-tenant conflict. That’s all there is to the story, but that’s all Sachs needs, because as any renter understands, losing a lease can change not only your address but your whole life. “I think all my films are about intimacy and economics, and how those things play out together,” the filmmaker recently told the Daily Beast. In the last two, those economics can be measured in square footage.
Love Is Strange was hailed for its portrayal of two elderly gay men—not the most heavily represented demographic in American movies—but it also leaves you acutely aware that one’s living space dictates what kind of living one is allowed to do. Ben (John Lithgow), a fine artist, and George (Alfred Molina), a music teacher, decide to marry after 39 years together, the last 20 in a Manhattan condo that they first rented and then bought. But when word of their marriage reaches the local archdiocese, George loses his job teaching at a Catholic school, and the men can no longer meet their mortgage payment. Their condo association exacts a heavy penalty for renting the unit, and when they’re forced to sell, it levies a 25 percent “flip tax” because they’ve owned the unit for fewer than five calendar years. As a temporary measure, Ben moves in with his nephew and George crashes on the couch of some friends, but both men feel like unwanted guests and miss each other keenly.
In Little Men the conflict all springs from the business dealings of someone who isn’t there: Max Jardine, owner of a small Brooklyn apartment building and the father of middle-aged Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Audrey (Talia Balsam). Max’s relationship with Brian, a struggling off-Broadway actor, is so distant that when Max dies, an old friend (Molina again) phones Brian’s family in Manhattan to ask about the memorial service before they’ve even heard the news. For years Brian has been supported financially by his kind, even-tempered wife, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), a busy psychotherapist, and they leap at the chance to vacate their expensive home and move into the old second-floor apartment where Brian was raised. Audrey, who inherited the building with Brian, wants to see more income from the street-level storefront, which Max has rented for years to a Chilean-American woman selling handmade dresses, so family begin the delicate process of notifying the tenant, Leonor (Paulina García), that they’re going to triple her rent.
According to the politics of gentrification, the Jardines are the villains here—white professionals who snap up a bargain property in an up-and-coming neighborhood and force out a Hispanic merchant whose small business gives the street some of its flavor. But Sachs complicates this easy reading by making Brian a highly sympathetic figure. At the memorial service he plays the strong, gracious son, but later, as he’s hauling some boxes down to the basement, he bursts into tears, and Sachs, granting him the privacy of a shadowy space, lingers on the anguished moment just a few seconds longer than is comfortable. Brian cares deeply for his school-age son, Jake (Theo Taplitz), a shy, artistic boy who reminds him of himself, and he’s so pleased to see Jake bond with Leonor’s cocky son, Anthony (Michael Barbieri), that he can’t bear to inform Jake about the escalating business conflict. He’s a decent guy trying to find a humane outcome to a situation in which humanity doesn’t figure.
Leonor understands what’s coming, and she resorts to all manner of emotional manipulation to strengthen her weak hand. When Anthony gets into a fistfight at school defending Jake’s good name, Leonor makes sure that Jake knows about it. Cornered by Brian at last, she coldly puts him in his place: “Your father and I were very good friends. We spent a lot of time together. What you and your sister don’t understand is that your father wanted me to stay. He thought of me as part of this house, part of this neighborhood. I was more his family, if you wanna know, than you were.” There’s no way to know whether this arrogant statement is true, and Brian is too pleasant a fellow to point out that his father never arranged to provide for Leonor in the event of his death.
You couldn’t ask for a better example of intimacy and economics playing out together, and the standoff only deteriorates from there. Leonor refuses even to look at the new lease, promising to give it to her attorney, and when Brian passes by the store, she’s posted a HELP WANTED sign. The next time she and Brian speak, the writing’s on the wall, and Leonor seems intent on getting her revenge before the eviction notice arrives. “Do you know why your father didn’t come to your son’s birthday, the last one?” she asks Brian. “The truth is, he was embarrassed that everything in your house was paid for by your wife. He thought you should be more as a man.” Brian accepts this vicious cut as his due, but no rejoinder is needed, because he and his sister are the ones holding the deed on the property. As anyone can tell you, there’s no such thing as a tenant getting the last word. v