Movies this good don’t come around often enough anymore. Little Men is a modest, quiet stunner about the intense friendship that develops between two 13-year-olds: Jake (Theo Taplitz), a sensitive junior high kid with aspirations to be a painter, and Tony (Michael Barbieri), a popular actor-in-the-making with some jock tendencies.
Following the death of Jake’s grandfather, the family relocates to an inherited Brooklyn brownstone. Tony’s immigrant mother (Paulina Garcia, giving an utterly lived-in performance) runs a not especially profitable dress shop on the first floor, where she’s been paying rent at less than a fifth of the going rate. After Tony and Jake spend days cruising around the city, reveling in each other’s silence, reality intrudes.
Jake’s father, a struggling stage actor (Greg Kinnear), tells Tony’s mother that the neighborhood is changing and that he needs to triple her rent. Clearly unable to afford the hike, she stonewalls for as long she can; finally, the new landlord and his successful doctor wife (Jennifer Ehle) are forced to file an eviction notice. Things escalate, but only in the muted, realistic, deeply painful ways they do in modern life; not, generally, in the movies.
Somehow a tale of neighborhood gentrification becomes an exquisitely humanistic coming-of-age story in which every character has his or her reasons, no one is right or wrong and people get hurt badly. What could be melodramatic is, instead, reminiscent of Chekov.
There isn’t an off performance in the whole 85-minute movie, but Barbieri, who has a role in the next Spider-Man, is a charismatic find with an adolescent Al Pacino vibe. He’s really something, especially when screenwriters Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias (Keep the Lights On, Love Is Strange) depict him in a drama-class throwdown with his teacher, or when he becomes a champion for his friend, whose beautiful artwork his burnt-out teachers disregard. Sachs directs with finesse, subtlety and humor, and Dickon Hinchliffe’s score is a little beauty. Little Men needs no explosions, no CGI, no dramatic pyrotechnics. It just sneaks up and wallops you.