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Little Men: When Nobody’s the Bad Guy, Everybody Is

In the latest film from Ira Sachs, a rent dispute between well-meaning people exposes their inability to be decent to one another.

What’s troubling about society isn’t that we’re all wretched souls, but rather that we’re actually decent people who won’t acknowledge the times we do wrong. Sure, most of us aren’t committing genocide, but every day, in our own tiny ways, we contribute to hurting other people: We turn a blind eye to atrocities happening halfway across the globe; we buy ourselves something nice rather than giving money to charity; we profess sorrow for others’ misfortune, but don’t turn words into action. None of these minor infractions will land you in jail, but added up, they make our world a little bit worse than it was before.

The lovely drama Little Men is a small-scale tragedy populated by perfectly well intentioned people who are willfully blind to their own selfishness. Director Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On, Love Is Strange) presents none of these people as villains because that’s not how they see themselves. They’re just trying to do their best. But as happens in real life, sometimes doing your best in Little Men means doing harm to someone else.

As the film opens, a seemingly well-off married couple named Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) are moving from Manhattan into the Brooklyn home of Brian’s recently deceased father. The house sits directly above a modest clothing boutique operated by Leonor (Paulina García), a working-class Chilean woman taking care of her teen son Tony (Michael Barbieri) while her husband is overseas. Tony befriends Brian and Kathy’s 13-year-old son Jake (Theo Taplitz), and the teens soon become inseparable, sharing a deep love for the arts.

Little Men could be an optimistic look at how different cultures connect over shared values and interests, but Sachs is too pragmatic. Quickly, we see the fault lines emerge between these characters. Although Leonor was good friends with Brian’s dad for years—closer to the deceased, perhaps, than Brian was—Brian feels pressure to raise her rent since it’s been below-market for quite some time. Brian is a struggling actor forced to accept gigs at nonprofit theaters, making Kathy’s therapy practice the family’s only steady income. Asking Leonor to pay more could be just the financial boost Brian needs. The only problem is that Leonor can’t afford an increase—her shop is hardly thriving—and what’s more, she insists that Brian’s dad had sworn to her that he would always make sure she’d be taken care of, promising to keep her rent low.

Thanks to button-pushing social dramas such as Crash, we’ve come to expect a certain kind of heavy-handed filmmaking in which cast and crew furrow their brow and rend their garments, lamenting humanity’s inherent fallibility. But Little Men is light on its feet, the film’s quiet poignancy is held at a distance, as if Sachs and cowriter Mauricio Zacharias want to hold out hope that, just maybe, everything will work out. And because Sachs never cheats—there are no convoluted plot twists for the sake of cheap dramatic irony—his film’s lifelike flow from scene to scene builds to an ending that, really, we should have known was coming all along.

Sachs makes it impossible to choose sides in this brewing feud. The initial niceties between the married couple and Leonor are carried out in good faith—nobody in the movie wants to be a jerk—but once Brian gives Leonor the new lease with the substantial rent increase, Sachs keeps upending our expectations about these characters. In a hackneyed version of Little Men, Brian and Kathy would be the smug, oblivious white people too wrapped up in their own lives to care about this kindly immigrant mother. But in this movie, Brian and Kathy are painfully aware how they must seem, and so they go out of their way to behave like enlightened, sensitive people. The film’s sad joke—one of several—is that Brian and Kathy’s protestations don’t make a difference: In the end, they, like most of us, are going to make decisions based on their own self-interests.

At one point, Kathy tries to assuage her guilt by telling Leonor, “I know you think we’re the rich people coming into this neighborhood.” Kathy wants to prove to her that the truth is more complicated than that, but nonetheless the exchange cuts to the heart of Little Men’s core observation about the challenges of seeing things from other people’s perspective. Sure, Brian and Kathy are financially hurting, but in comparison to Leonor, they’re incredibly fortunate. And even if Leonor’s growing antipathy for this couple may be warranted, her sense victimhood clouds her ability to see that they may have a point—after all, it’s not Brian and Kathy’s problem that his father never had Leonor sign a lease.

García, who starred in the acclaimed 2013 golden-years romantic drama Gloria, is Little Men’s tart center, playing Leonor not as some patronizingly innocent, helpless foreigner but, rather, as a tough-as-nails single mom who isn’t above needling Brian and Kathy’s liberal guilt, determined to make it as difficult as possible on them to kick her out. Even more fiendish, Leonor happily drops just enough clues to make Brian think not only that his father was ashamed of him but also that she and the father had been carrying on a secret romantic relationship for years. Because the audience doesn’t know anything about the characters except for what they tell each other, we’re in some ways put into the same position as everybody on screen, our biases and assumptions laid bare by the ambiguous information we receive. Like Brian, Kathy and Leonor, we have to question why we perceive certain events in particular ways.

Kinnear and Ehle are both superb as a supposedly enlightened couple whose principled stances are challenged by this showdown with Leonor. These are tricky performances, portraying basically good people who don’t recognize their own moral blind spots, and the two actors underplay them beautifully. Brian and Kathy just want to take care of their family—who would blame them for raising Leonor’s rent? Why won’t she just be reasonable about the whole thing?

Then there’s the little men of the title. Theo Taplitz’s Jake is a bashful, sweet boy, while Michael Barbieri’s Tony is far more outgoing and brash. The pair is at an age when they’re still really just kids, unable to fully comprehend why their parents are slowly turning on each other. But even here, Sachs doesn’t go for easy emotional beats. Jake and Tony are tangential to the central story, drifting along the margins and doing their own thing. They get into fights with classmates, try to ask pretty girls out, and prepare to apply for a prestigious art academy. Living in the bubble of childhood, they have their own problems, far removed from that of the adults. And yet, Sachs finds a way to connect the two worlds. Issues of race and class—haves and have-nots—ultimately visit everyone.

At 85 minutes, Little Men is a slight little shrug of a film, but that lightness carries with it a calm frankness about how people behave, Sachs never lets cinematic artifice distract us from human beings’ fundamental nature. None of us are inherently evil, but because we think about ourselves first, we risk never being better. It’s like Bob Dylan sang so long ago in “One Too Many Mornings,” summarizing a breakup as succinctly as anyone ever has. “You’re right from your side,” he said. “I’m right from mine.”

Grade: B+

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site