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Review: ‘Little Men’

dfn-little_men-300The beauty of youth is not knowing any better.

Jake, 13 years old, doesn’t know any better, so when his grandfather dies, it doesn’t really affect him. Or so he believes in Ira Sachs’ Little Men, which soon enough reveals that Jake’s life will be changed profoundly by the death of the old stranger.

At first, the changes affect Jake (Theo Taplitz) in a minimal way. Sure, his grandfather’s death means that Jake and his parents, Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Kathy Jardine (Jennifer Ehle), move from their home in Manhattan to his grandfather’s comfortable brownstone in Brooklyn, a big change that would phase most people. Jake, though, is an introverted kid; he’s content to draw and paint and observe. In fact, the move is a good thing for him, in that he easily gains a new best friend.

Tony Cavelli (Michael Barbieri) is as outgoing as Jake is shy. Friendly and boisterous, Tony quickly warms to Jake — hey look! Another kid! My age, too! –and the two spend as much time together as possible. Their friendship is facilitated by proximity; Tony is the son of Leonor Cavelli (Paulina Garcia), who runs a dress shop located on the ground floor of the Jardine’s brownstone.

Leonor is reticent and cool toward the Jardine family, probably because she can anticipate what will eventually happen. Indeed, after the family has settled into their new routine, and Brian has had some time to deal with natural grief about the loss of his father, Brian sits down with his sister Audrey (Talia Balsam) and is forced to realize that Leonor has been paying rent that is far below the commercial market rate.

Brian is a struggling actor and none too successful in financial terms. Kathy is a doctor who has accepted that she must cover all the family’s monetary responsibilities. They simply cannot afford to cover their expenses and also give Leonor a huge break on her rent. To further intensify the pressure, Audrey feels entitled to some of the financial benefits that Brian received from inheriting the brownstone …

And so, inevitably, the gnawing pressures eat away at the tentative protective net the parents have thrown over their children, and so the children discover, quite to their surprise and horror, that they must share in paying the price for an intractable situation.

Little Men displays a remarkable lightness of touch, never becoming heavy-handed, even as certain pressures become oppressive. ‘This, too, shall pass’ appears to be the even-handed tone established by director/cowriter Ira Sachs and cowriter Mauricio Zacharias when it comes to their story and characters. When unkind words emerge, they’re never hurled without evident purpose on the part of the filmmaker. The truth can hurt, and couching it in kindness doesn’t lessen its sting.

Rare and refreshing, Little Men is gently spellbinding and refreshing for the soul.

Little Men opens at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano on Friday, August 26.