Adults’ feud trickles down to teens in well-acted ‘Little Men’

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Tony (Michael Barbieri, left) and Jake (Theo Taplitz), both 13, hit it off in “Little Men.” |

The most remarkable thing about Ira Sachs’ richly textured new film “Little Men” is how it manages to be about so much, and yet so little.

That’s not an insult. The film focuses on a brief period in the lives of two 13-year-old boys and their parents. Years from now, when the youngsters are men, the details will be fuzzy and unclear. But as they unfold at the time, their emotions are jagged and overwhelming and resonate with intense aftershocks.

Jake (Theo Taplitz) and his family move into a Brooklyn building that was owned by his grandfather, who has just died. Jake’s father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), is an actor whose career has never generated much income; mom Kathy is a psychotherapist trained in “conflict resolution,” she says.

Once they move in, Jake meets Tony (Michael Barbieri), and the two instantly hit it off. The boys are wildly different, yet they boast enough similarities that a friendship blossoms. Perhaps most importantly: Both kids are misfits. Sensitive Jake is introverted and wants to be an artist. Tony is all brashness and unbridled energy, and he has dreams of being an actor and getting accepted into the LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts. The two envision attending together, as they ride the subway or simply hang out in each other’s homes. In these moments, the movie boasts the natural tone found in George Roy Hill’s coming-of-age classic “The World of Henry Orient.”

Tony’s mom, Leonor (Paulina Garcia), runs a dress shop from the family building. She has owned the business for several years, and even though the neighborhood is in the midst of revitalization, Brian’s father never raised the rent. But Brian, feeling the economic pinch and pressured by his sister, triples the lease on her store. Leonor balks, and the feud eventually makes its way down to the youngsters.

That’s essentially all there is to the movie, but writer-director Sachs (he made the endearing “Love Is Strange”) approaches everything with an uncommon warmth and perception. The boys’ confusion over what’s going on (they initially give their parents the silent treatment) is painfully futile, as is their grasp of the situation. “Our parents are involved in a business matter and it’s getting ugly,” is how Tony explains it to Jake.

There are no villains in the piece, though Leonor comes close. It’s more that she doesn’t know how to cope, so she responds by verbally attacking Brian, his relationship with his late father and even his moneymaking abilities. “I thought you were in a new, big play?” she asks, cold as an iceberg. It’s to Garcia’s credit that the character retains her humanity.

All the performers are excellent. The youngsters, both making their feature debuts, are so wildly gifted that it often feels like a viewer is eavesdropping on their conversations. Kinnear is outstanding; a scene in which he lashes out at the boys after they snub him on the night his play opens is wrenching. The film never goes for melodrama; instead, it is full of honestly drawn scenes like that, when the sadness of the situation simply reaches out and grabs at you.

Another thing the movie does so well: It explores the angles from all different points of view: Brian’s quiet despair; Leonor’s feeling of betrayal; the boys’ fight for their friendship. It’s a short film, running only 85 minutes, but it sure has a lot of heart and life packed into it.

‘Little Men’ three and a half stars

Magnolia Pictures presents a film directed by Ira Sachs and written by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias. Running time: 85 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements, smoking and language). Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre.

Randy Cordova, USA TODAY Network

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