Director Ira Sachs is a master at showing the ins and outs of interpersonal conflict. In his previous two films – “Keep the Lights On” and “Love Is Strange” — the stories revolved around gay men. In “Little Men,” he broadens his universe with a textured portrait of two families reluctantly at war in which the fallout poisons the friendship of their teenage boys.
Greg Kinnear is Brian Jardine, a struggling actor in New York who inherits a small building in Brooklyn after the death of his father. He moves with his family — wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), and a shy 13-year-old son, Jake (Theo Taplitz) — into the second-floor apartment while the ground floor is home to a small, failing dress shop run by Leonor (acclaimed Chilean actress Paulina Garcia from Gloria). She also is the single mother of a mouthy but good-hearted son, Tony (Michael Barbieri), who quickly bonds with Jake even though they are outwardly very different.
As with “Love Is Strange,” in which the couple at the story’s center is separated due to the insanity of the New York real-estate market, money woes begin to corrode any sense of friendship between upstairs and downstairs. Brian’s father had been letting Leonor stay without raising her rent and Brian, who really needs the cash, can’t afford to let her remain paying her reduced rate.
A new, trendy tenant gladly would pay much more but Brian doesn’t want to play hardball — in fact, he’s not very good at it. Still, Leonor sees him as a heartless landlord who wants to sacrifice her on the altar of gentrification.
At first, it doesn’t seem as if the adults’ war of words will affect Jake and Tony who are often absorbed in their own adolescent world. But, little by little, like a lowering cloud, it begins to shade their relationship, too.
There are no villains in the well-written and well-acted “Little Men.” Everybody’s just doing the best with what they have. But, as in life, sometimes that’s just not good enough.
Rated: PG for thematic elements, smoking, mild language. Starring: Greg Kinnear, Alfred Molina, Michael Barbieri. Director: Ira Sachs. Running time: 85 minutes. Theater: Flicks.