/ Little Men Review (2016)

In the summer of 2016, the First Family at the time, that of the United States President Barack Obama, contacted Magnolia Pictures to request a DVD of Little Men to watch over their summer vacation in Cape Cod. What would this movie have told them about contemporary America?

First of all, American filmmaker Ira Sachs’ 2016 film is a specifically New York story. Back in the 1970’s, often considered the golden age for American cinema as an art form, New York was a poor city; deserted by industry and the affluent inhabitants, who were undergoing ‘white flight.’ Woody Allen celebrated the classical beauty of the Manhattan skyline and it’s upper middle class residents, while Martin Scorsese trawled the streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx for mythic men in films such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and even edited the films in his mothers Bronx apartment.

During this era the seeds of gentrification were sown by the artists and creatives living downtown. Loft-living became associated with the city and a highly desirable way of life. Long term poor and African-American and Latino residents were displaced from their homes to outer New Jersey by aggressive city policies designed to stimulate the real estate market, while artists were given favourable treatment, such as rent discounts. In the 1990’s this approach would be formalised as a means of ‘regeneration’ by the academic Richard Florida, who believed that creative industries were key to ‘improving’ an area: bringing up the property prices and seeing investment flow in. The Floridian model was rolled out across various continents: from Kreuzberg in Berlin to Shoreditch in London – but it was born in New York.

Little Men takes place in the contemporary New York borough of Brooklyn and follows two families – the Jardines and the Calvellis. Grandpa Jardine has recently died and the family have inherited an apartment and the shop beneath it, the Casa De Moda. This is currently leased by Leonora Calvelli (played by Paulina García), a close friend of old man Jardine. However, the rents in the area have risen considerably and the Jardines are looking to extract more rent from Leonora’s struggling business, which she is unable to pay.

The film’s protagonist however, might be the property market, after all it is the thing that produces the forces which move both families in the film to make the decisions they do. Sachs has been quoted as saying that he views the world with “essentially a Marxist perspective.” In Marx’s theories, “the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour,” meaning that although goods and services for market might appear as objects in themselves, they are actually traces of the social relations which were present in the activity of their making. When housing becomes a commodity, we, like the Jardine parents, see it as an objective force which comes to obscure the social character of our interactions.

Brian Jardine (Greg Kinnear) is a struggling actor, and his wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) supports the family through her therapy practice. Leonora Calvelli is biting when she deems Brian’s theatrework ‘successful’ knowing full well it makes very little money: she is making the point that Brian has a place of history which is allowed to lose money, and yet due to Brian and the Jardine’s actions, Leonor is not afforded the same.

Sachs shows the relationship between the two families as interweaving between the objective and the social. The Jardines, under pressure from Brian’s assertive sister, look to renegotiate the rent, below market price, but a threefold increase. In return, the elegantly defiant Leonor shows Brian pictures of her family on holiday with Brian’s father. The social history of the place is reasserted as a fact more important, more determining of the future course of events, than the price the shop might have as property.

Little Men, however, more closely follows the characters of the young boys, sensitive and artistic Jake Jardine and the bold Tony Calvelli (Theo Taplitz and Mike Barbieri), who live in an almost parallel world to the adults, their friendship appearing utopian. Sachs’ camera makes great play from Jake’s gamine tentative rollerskating and Tony’s fast scooter. There is a simplicity in their friendship which knows no race or class, or if it does, it takes adult divisions lightly. The diegetic sound is muted and their friendship takes place to lighthearted music – their video games sounding like symphonies. Sachs is able to enter their world, and perhaps he over idealises it, in a classic indie film sentimentality embedded in U.S. movies which Little Men fails to shake off. But when Tony and Jake’s relationship is heartbreakingly destroyed by gentrification, it is the kind of event that we all, especially presidents, should remember.