The Lopsided “Little Men”

Note: I find that I am unable to discuss my thoughts on this film without discussing key plot points. Beware then of spoilers.

As we were exiting Ira Sachs’ latest film, “Little Men,” a friend and I entered into a heated debate on whether or not Sachs had truly portrayed both families in the film in equal measure. To explain, “Little Men” is a film where Sachs explores issues of gentrification through family drama.
The story of “Little Men” is centered on two boys, Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) and Tony Calvelli (Michael Barbieri).  Jake is an artist while Tony wishes to be an actor. Both dream about entering LaGuardia high school and succeeding in their respective artistic careers. The story begins with the death of Jake’s grandfather, who leaves an apartment complex to his family in his will. The first floor of the building is a tailor business run by Calvelli’s mother, Leonor (Pauline Garcia), who was close friends with Jake’s grandfather.

Jake and his family move into the apartment since it’s more spacious, and due to the fact that they own it, are provided monetary relief. As we learn from Jake’s father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), however, their family is still struggling with money. Brian is an actor who isn’t quite successful and his wife, Kathy, (Jennifer Ehle) is a psychotherapist whose job allows her to be the breadwinner of the family.

Brian discovers that his father had been renting the first floor to Eleanor extremely cheap and so he attempts to negotiate with Eleanor on the price. Eleanor, however, can’t afford it and refuses to budge on the issue, outright avoiding the Jardines whenever she can. The fights between the adults escalate, putting a strain on the relationship between Jake and Tony who find themselves caught between their parents.

My issue with the film wasn’t that Sachs didn’t display an understanding of gentrification—I think he did—but it’s that I see “Little Men” as ultimately being from the perspective of the white family, the one’s moving into the neighborhood and causing the gentrification.

This is such an issue because gentrification is a racial problem, and the ones suffering its consequences are minorities. “Little Men” is then inherently political, which once again, I think Sachs understands, and so the film has power to expose audiences to an ongoing issue. But the folly I see of “Little Men” having lies in the fact that it does take that perspective of the white family. What ends up happening then is that the perspective of the film makes it so the audiences see the better side of things, the white perspective.

We had invited a second friend to come watch the film with us, and when we told her the summary in order to interest her, she said, “This seems like a feel-good movie for White people.” I wouldn’t use those exact words, but that’s the consequence of “Little Men.” While it does portray some of the cruel aspects of gentrification, it’s extremely watered down because of that choice of white perspective.

Sachs doesn’t truly take the risk in portraying the issue, perhaps out of fear of making white audiences feel uncomfortable, and so I can’t say that “Little Men” is the best film on gentrification. As a director and screenwriter—the latter role he shares with Mauricio Zacharias—Sachs isn’t direct enough with the subject matter and perhaps he could never be. He’s a white filmmaker who’s made a film about a problem affecting minorities.

Brian talks about the family’s monetary troubles, but we never really see that. Kathy’s job seems to earn the family plenty enough for them to live in comfortability; they are able to afford luxuries, such as a car, a video game console and thereby video games, paintings, and enough wine to drink on a daily basis. That’s not to say that having these things means that one can’t have problems with money, but that it’s paradoxical for Brian to say the family is having money issues in one scene, only for the entire film to show the Jardines living in at least middle class luxury.

Perhaps then, Sachs isn’t making the case that the Jardines are truly in need of money. This second perspective is one which looks at Brian’s need for money as a male-centric egotistical problem. With his wife Kathy as the breadwinner of the house, it could be argued that Brian feels uncomfortable, because he believes in traditional gender roles. During one of his arguments with Eleanor, Eleanor states that Brian’s father was ashamed of his son, because everything in the house was paid for by Kathy.

If we do decide that this was Sachs’ intent, to make the Jardines’ argument for gentrifying the neighborhood one centered on Brian’s problems with his ego, this makes the white perspective all the more terrible. If Brian is evicting Eleanor just because he can, what does the film achieve by its white point of view?

I want to clarify where exactly do I see the film as preferring the perspective of the Jardines. Throughout “Little Men”, Sachs spends more time with the Jardines than the Calvellis. When the Calvellis are onscreen, it’s usually because of an interaction initiated by a Jardine. This makes the Calvellis appear as secondary characters rather than they appearing as a shared group of main characters.

There’s also two pivotal scenes I want to discuss. Due to their respective families feuding, Jake and Tony promise one another to take a vow of silence and withhold from speaking to their parents. Both the Jardines and Eleanor find the silence amusing but later on, Brian has enough of it. Following the debut of his new play, Brian asks Jake and Tony on what their opinions are. Their silence makes Brian angry and when Tony snickers, Brian shouts that Tony will never make it into LaGuardia High School, thereby never becoming the great actor he aspires to be.

The second scene is the ending of the film.  Unable to negotiate with Eleanor, Brian finally hires a lawyer and has her evicted. Tony then moves and his friendship with Jake dissolves. We’re then given a brief time skip, and when we return, Jake is on a field trip with his classmates at a museum. He notices that across the room, Tony is also on a class trip. With the two no longer being on speaking terms, however, Jake can only watch Tony from afar before returning to his class. The entire scene is done from Jake’s point of view.

The consequence of these two scenes is that they’re demeaning towards Tony. The first is a bit obvious in that Brian is telling Tony he’ll never make it as an actor. There’s more nuance to it however because of issues of race. It’s not just Brian telling Tony he won’t achieve his dreams, but a white man telling a young Hispanic boy that he won’t achieve his dreams. If Tony hadn’t realized the difficulties that he’d face in the world due to the color of his skin yet, he will now.

But Brian apologizes and the whole matter is swept under the rug. Sachs glides into the next scene, forgoing what could be such a powerful moment in favor for continuing the story. You know, poor Tony. The finale of the film continues the eliciting of a sense of white pity; because it’s shot from Jake’s point of view, he becomes a proxy for how the audience should feel. That feeling in question is sadness and pity for Tony but not from the audience’s own perspective but from Jake’s, a white person.

If Sachs wanted to get into the real grit of race relations, there would be more scenes from the perspective of the Calvellis. But that isn’t the case. Like the effects of Brian demeaning Tony are ignored, so are the effects of Tony and his mother being evicted. By ignoring the seriousness of such issues, Sachs is avoiding dealing with the issue in a way that it should be: direct and unflinching, consequence and all.

All of this isn’t to say that “Little Men” isn’t a good film. Sachs has taken up an important issue and is able to showcase the nuance of it. His actors, especially Michael Barbieri, whose charisma is infectious and provides the film’s best comedic moments. Neither is Sachs a bad director. He captures the fighting between the two families with intensity but also captures the joy of evolving friendship between the two boys with extreme glee. The issues I have with “Little Men” are in its ideas and execution of those ideas.

I think the arguments presented by Brian and Eleanor are presented in an equal manner. With little money to her name, Eleanor can only plead with Brian from an emotional standpoint on why she shouldn’t be evicted. Brian, who is in “need” of money, can only do so much with Eleanor’s sadness and tries to get her to see his side of things: he needs the money, and he’s in the right to raise the price. Morally, it may not be the right thing to do but morals don’t put bread on the table.

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