‘Little Men’
Director:
Ira Sachs
Stars: Greg Kinnear, Paulina Garcia
Rating: PG
4 (out of 5) Globes

Watching “Little Men,” it’s often easy to forget it has a plot, let alone something to say about gentrification. It doesn’t feel like an issue film, even if it almost is. That’s how director Ira Sachs rolls. His previous films have handled powderkeg material: “Keep the Lights On” is about addiction and “Love is Strange” explored marriage equality. But they find Sachs gently sanding down the gripping narrative, almost blurring the fact that it’s there at all. Hairpin turns happen in between scenes or in the middle of a sudden, giant ellipsis. Characters only talk about their unpleasant situations with great reluctance. It’s a neat trick, but it also reflects how the characters wish they were free to live their lives free of headaches. Yet they still achieve moments of transcendence.

The headache in question involves what to do with a Brooklyn clothing shop that makes no money. Greg Kinnear plays Brian, a not terribly successful actor whose father has just died, leaving him his Sunset Park building on a quiet block. Manhattan’s too expensive, and even though his wife (Jennifer Ehle) is successful enough that they get by, he takes the chance to relocate them to the second-floor apartment, right above an under-frequented store owned by Chilean transplant Leonor (Paulina Garcia). Leonor was close with Brian’s carefree father, close enough that he never kicked her out when sales were low — or finalized legal paperwork that would keep her there should he pass and the neighborhood become more moneyed. All of a sudden, Brian, mealy-mouthed and depressed, finds himself up against Leonor, stubborn and prickly, who if she has to go won’t go quietly. 

Except the movie isn’t really about them. It’s about their sons. Brian has a 13-year-old kid named Jake (Theo Taplitz), who’s arty and shy, hoping to get into a local arts school. That doesn’t keep him from instantly clicking with Antonio (Michael Barbieri), Leonor’s loud-mouth sparkplug of a son. They’re young enough that the differences in temperament, much less class and ethnicity, don’t keep them from hanging, unaware of the nasty business between their parents. They don’t even get the gist when each parent cryptically tells them to stop seeing each other, which they just ignore.

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It’s amazing “Little Men” only runs 85 minutes. Somehow it’s both economical and open. There’s a lot of plot, but even more scenes that do little but follow its two young charges. Sachs will film them scouring the neighborhood against Dickon Hinchliffe’s soothing score. It can be keyed-up, too. At one point the movie stops dead for a show-stopping scene where Antonio launches into an epic faux-shouting match with his acting teacher. (The charismatic Barbieri has already been snatched up for the next “Spider-Man” movie. Good.)

Periodically the good vibes are interrupted by the parents. As Leonor, Garcia, who killed as a grouchy middle-aged single in the Chilean “Gloria,” manages to combine grace with stridency. Brian’s dealings with her leave him exasperated. He has the upper hand, yet Leonor still circles around him like a buzzard, nipping at him with little jabs about how she knew his father better than he did, that he was always ashamed his son’s career didn’t fare better. Her digs can be nasty, even hilarious. When she learns he’s currently in a tiny production of “The Seagull,” she quietly quips, “Oh, that must be popular.”

And yet Sachs isn’t taking sides. Leonor and Brian both handle an impossible situation poorly. But again, the movie isn’t about that, even though it handles the drama with the complexity it deserves. It’s about the spaces in between incidents. The most intense scenes begin early or late, before or after the fireworks start, and the camera remains open, not filming it like a drama where the drama is primary. It has great empathy for both parties, who are strong at their worst and weak at their best. That they’re afraid to be upfront with their kids may be bad in the long run, but it has the unintended benefit of letting their kids forge a connection they assume will last forever. They have no idea what’s coming. But in the meantime they’re free, and Sachs’ camera is there to capture it before it fades into the ether.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge