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‘Little Men’ review: Money, family test two boys’ friendship

Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle in

Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle in "Little Men." Photo Credit: Magnolia Pictures

PLOT The friendship between two middle school boys is jeopardized by a feud between their families.

CAST Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina Garcia, Talia Balsam

RATED PG (thematic elements, smoking and some language)

LENGTH 1:25

PLAYING AT Roslyn Cinema, Malverne Cinema 4, Sag Harbor Cinema

BOTTOM LINE Thoughtful look at the impact of gentrification.

Ira Sachs has taken to making personal, intimate films about relationships complicated by larger forces; drawing social issues under a microscope to examine them on a granular level, through individual choices and experiences. In “Little Men,” he looks at the way gentrification works through the experience of two families who are at odds over a single Brooklyn storefront. It’s a thoughtful, gentle depiction of class war, where the relationship that’s wrested apart is one of the most fragile — a tender friendship between tween boys.

Sachs has made two wonderful discoveries in Michael Barbieri and Theo Taplitz, who make their feature film acting debuts here, and play Tony and Jake, respectively. The eighth-graders are brought together when Jake’s dad, Brian (Greg Kinnear), inherits his father’s building, and the family makes the pilgrimage from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina Garcia), tends a small, struggling dress shop downstairs, having enjoyed a warm relationship with Brian’s father, and the below-market rent that entailed.

As the quirky, artistic Jake and the motormouth wannabe actor Tony bond, the parents start to do quiet battle over the shop’s rent. Brian’s sister, Audrey (Talia Balsam), puts on the pressure to evict so they can charge triple the rent. The boys’ friendship causes the adults to tread with caution — Brian is just happy that Jake has a friend — but there’s no escaping the self-serving motivation that the promise of money brings out in everyone.

Sachs is a master of tiny but profound moments, and he often elides expositional, unnecessary dialogue, allowing the audience to fill in the blanks, and ponder the emotional effect on the characters rather than the details. The boys’ friendship, one of proximity, afforded interesting possibilities for the families to blend and learn from each other. That potential is dashed by the power of greed, and the social forces that sweep over each individual, washing away personal choice, leaving behind the class-designated path. It’s rueful, bittersweet, but seemingly inevitable.

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