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'Little Men' Has Big Ideas

Greg Kinnear stars in a finely tuned family drama

(Video) Little Men Movie Trailer:  When 13-year-old Jake's (Theo Taplitz) grandfather dies, his family moves from Manhattan back into his father's old Brooklyn home.

Rating: PG

Run Time: 1 hour 25 minutes

Stars: Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina Garcia

Director: Ira Sachs

A movie of exquisite moments, Ira Sachs' Little Men is an uncommon entry to the world of two teenage boys whose friendship suffers collateral damage in a grownup conflict between their parents.

It's a film refreshingly devoid of villains — only kindhearted folks whose attempts to do the right thing for their families put them at odds with each other. Our hearts are pulled first one way, then another, as the disagreement unfolds — always with the boys in the middle, trying to make sense of the first major crisis of their young lives.

Jake (Theo Taplitz) has just moved with his parents from Manhattan into the residential level of a Brooklyn house left to them by his grandfather. On the ground level is a seamstress shop run by Leonor (Paulina Garcia), a Chilean woman who was a close friend of Granddad and, as a result, enjoyed a very low rent.

Jake becomes close friends with Leonor's son Tony (Michael Barbieri), but soon a rift grows between Leonor and Jake's parents, Brian and Kathy (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle). Because Brian and Kathy are struggling financially, they need Leonor to pay market value rent, and she can't afford it.

In an era of high-concept movies, the conflict here is a pretty mellow one. But like lots of seemingly simple real-life problems, it's of monumental importance to all involved. For each side, the outcome will bring life-changing consequences. In finely realized, understated vignettes of hushed conversations and tearful encounters, Sachs delineates the stakes. The rules of film narrative keep urging us to identify the problem party, but in the end there is none.

Through it all, Jake and Tony seem to strengthen their bond. Jake is a budding artist, and Tony wants to be an actor. They hang out, reviewing drawings, reading scenes from plays, exploring the streets of Brooklyn. Their big plan is to attend the same high school for the arts together.

In 'Little Men', Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri) hang out and explore the streets of Brooklyn, despite the growing rift between their parents

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

In "Little Men," Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri) hang out and explore the streets of Brooklyn, despite the growing rift between their parents.

Alas, the parental conflict eventually boils over into the boys' lives. The kids' instinct is to put up a united front against their parents, but one of the cruelest lessons of childhood is that of ultimate powerlessness. As the storm waters rise, the currents of their parents' dispute push them apart — a development that denotes a sort of kinship between Little Men and writer-director Sachs' previous film, Love Is Strange, in which a married gay couple is forced by economic circumstances to live apart.

The film's most dramatic moment is one of its quietest: Dad sits down with Jake in the boy's bedroom and tries to help him sort through the swirling debris of his emotions. The father is not a successful man — he muddles through life as a third-tier actor who is haunted by twin desires for artistic fulfillment and providing for his family. So there he sits, vulnerable and authoritative, apologizing not so much for his handling of the situation as for the cruel complexities of life itself. It is a spectacularly subdued moment from Kinnear, again proving himself one of his generation's finest screen actors.

Not everyone will be satisfied by the final moments of Little Men. There is a certain incompleteness in them, a sense that there is more story to be told. Perhaps that uneasiness is born out of an uncomfortable memory or two of our own — a recollection of that childhood friend, the one with whom we swore eternal allegiance, who now lives only in the shadows of near-forgotten memory.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.

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