Want to see two young actors give breakthrough performances? Then watch in Little Men, an intimate gem of a film directed by Ira Sachs, which means they’re in the best of caring hands. What Sachs (The Delta, Forty Shades of Blue) and cowriter Mauricio Zacharias, who collaborated with the filmmaker on the gay-themed dramas Keep the Lights On and Love Is Strange, conjure up here is a serious pleasure, filled with messily human characters whose thoughts and feelings don’t necessarily emerge from the words they speak. You have to lean in and pay attention.
Taplitiz plays Jake, a 13-year-old Manhattan loner whose grandfather dies, leaving his Brooklyn brownstone — now gentrified into a valuable piece of real estate — to Jake’s struggling actor dad Brian (Greg Kinnear) and his psychotherapist mom Kathy (Jennifer Ehle). Barbieri plays Tony, whose Chilean mother Leonor (a superb Paulina Garcia) runs a dress shop on the ground floor of that house. Leonor, a single parent, can’t afford the rent raise Jake’s parents demand. Brian’s sister, Audrey (a terrific Talia Balsam), wants her evicted. The tension is palpable, though Jake and Tony don’t notice right away; they’re in the flush of a new friendship that makes adult reality disappear. Jake is a shy artist who layers his passions into everything he draws. Tony is a full-tilt dynamo eager to make it as an actor. Both want to study at the LaGuardia High School for the Arts, an ambition that binds them. Watch for the scene in which Tony and an acting teacher do battle in a class on improvisation, hurling lines at each other as if trading punches. It’s a knockout.
Otherwise, Little Men trades in subtle communication in the way of Chekhov, the Russian playwright who specialized in comic understatement and internalized agonies. (With Brian starring in a way Off-Broadway production of The Seagull, the allusion become direct — and quite moving.) Kinnear is quietly effective at playing a well-meaning failure still holding onto fading dreams. You bristle when Leonor tells Brian she meant more to his father than he did. And the actor makes you feel the pain when he can’t comfort his son about betraying Tony and his mother. Jake’s emotional outburst at things he can’t control is heart-wrenching.
Sachs handles this material with sublime delicacy and feeling, even as circumstances of money and class push Jake and Tony apart. It’s time to realize that Sachs is a modern master, lyrically attuned to the cadences of what it’s like to be fallibly human. Little Men, with its two boys racing at life with the brick wall of maturity still at a distance, is funny, touching and vital. It’s truly an exhilarating gift.