Little Men full movie review - One of 2016's few masterpieces
LITTLE MEN is the story of two boys who become friends in the twilight year of their childhood: a time when they will move on from elementary to high school and begin to take the first steps into their adult lives.
The title itself hearkens back to Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women," a similar concept in which young girls come of age amidst personal and emotional struggle.
The story of these two boys is one that is at times extremely intimate and wholly universal. I was reminded of my times during childhood when the summer days couldn't stretch on long enough and the only concerns in the world were whether or not I could have dinner at a friend's house. Maybe you don't know what you have until it's gone. That is definitely true in a story like this, where the consequences of actions are not that of the children, but rather their parents, and the stirring drama that unfolds through the generations as a result.
Jake is an artsy boy, shy with long hair, who keeps his nose in his sketchbook when his teacher lectures other kids on being quiet in the class. He hears word that his grandfather has just died (on his father's side, who is played by Greg Kinnear) and soon they form a small wake at the deceased's apartment in Brooklyn. It's here Jake meets Tony, a street- smart kind of kid with a heavy accent reminiscent of a bowery boy and an attitude to match. Despite their apparent differences, the two boys quickly become friends. Simultaneously, Jake and his family move into his grandfather's building and inherit the shop at street level, a dress shop owned by Tony's mother.
Two stories begin to unfold: that of a carefree summer amongst boys, and the turmoil of legal battles over the ownership to the shop. Jake's father, Brian, claims legal ownership and requires a rent hike in order to make ends meet. Tony's mother, Leonor, a Spanish- speaking woman with a firm head on her shoulders, both refuses to give up the shop and also pay the rent at 3 times the price. We hear stories of her good relationship with Brian's father, and how he wanted Leonor to stay in the shop when he died. She only needs what's best for her family. So does Brian.
Between Jake and Tony, we learn that both seek to apply to a prestigious art school in Manhattan for the fall. Jake for drawing and art, and Tony for acting. While Jake's art is never fully seen (and in fact I can't recall a single drawing that is fully framed at any given time), we have a marvelous scene where Tony takes Jake to an acting class for children. Here, a balding teacher with thick accent instruct the pupils on how to use improv, how to react, how to interact. A long shot between Tony and the teacher sees both calling back and forth repeated lines of dialogue with different inflections. Even for a simple audience member, we can tell that Tony has what it takes.
The drama, at times heavy-handed, guides the boys through the maturation of their personalities and in turn becomes a story about the intimacy children share with each other, secrets hidden from parents and shared in private conversation. This is done through masterful mise-en-scene, where a parent's resolution with his son seems to end happy until we realize they are framed on separate sides of a room. When Tony is rejected by a girl at a dance and later we see Jake lean his head into frame to share the space with his saddened friend. There are ways one could interpret this movie as a love story, but in no way one that leads to romance. This is the love that friends have who are kindred spirits despite differences.
I applaud the director, who clearly knows how to photograph a film and stage his actors. Watching "Little Men" makes one feel like they are in safe hands, and as such there is never a time that we doubt the motives or actions of the people we watch on screen. The movie ends several months later with Jake now long-haired and dressed more in-tune with an artist. He travels a museum with some classmates and in the distance hears the distinctive sound of Tony's voice. It's clear that in the end Tony and his family move out, and their friendship quickly dissipates in such a large city. This voice is the first time Jake has seen Tony since. Looking across a gallery exhibit, he sees Tony from behind, still in a Catholic school uniform. He is friendly as ever, but he quickly leaves with his friends and Jake is left alone. There is no "hello" or catching up. There is barely resolution. We are left with two thoughts: that Tony's family was unable to send him to the high school he wanted, or that Jake is just reminded of his old friend at the sight of the old school uniform. I'd like to think that the second is more plausible, if only because we want a happy ending for these two boys. It's unfair to picture a life where the actions of our parents can forever change the next generation's future.
For a movie about a summer friendship, this surely left me with a lot to ponder. This is about as limited a release as movies come, but if you manage to find a screening near you I implore you to check this one out.