A myriad of consequential mediums have all explored the cultural and socioeconomic effects of gentrification, specifically in metros like New York. Recently, television shows have reached a fever pitch when it comes to lampooning the narrative of millennial hipsters who have whitewashed historic neighborhoods with organic IPAs and loose tea leaves. One of the integral subplots of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” revolves around a baby boomer, salt-of-the-earth New Yorker whose ideals clash against fuzzy-mawed transplants. HBO’s “Girls” also addresses the theme of banal, plain yogurt homogenization, but with less exploratory wit. Other forms of media, such as the podcast 99% Invisible, have also addressed the cultural and architectural diversity of bustling metropolises with a serious eye for detail and emotion.
The director of “Little Men”, Ira Sachs, wasn’t born in New York, but he knows the buildings, history, and people well. Here, in Sach’s latest film, a well-to-do family from the suburban sprawl relocates to Brooklyn, only to usurp a local business owner of her shop and dignity. It’s a film that possesses conscientious thought about modernity, family, and sacrifice in the face of economic hardship.
Brian (Greg Kinnear), Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), and Jake (Theo Taplitz) make up the mildly affluent family that moves into the Brooklyn building that the patriarch’s late, sage-like father left to them. In a rented out shop on the property, Leonor (Paulina Garcia) and her son, Tony (Michael Barbieri), work, tirelessly, to support themselves. They have become one with the neighborhood, providing local dressmakers the platform to flourish within their small, unassuming shop. Passing nods and casual conversations become finite niceties that eventually give way to acerbic interplay when Brian attempts to raise the rent on Leonor’s diminutive business. Secrets are revealed, cigarettes are smoked, and distressed lighting prevails. And, all the meanwhile, the boys of the two embattled families begin a friendship that takes on child-like pragmatism.
Sachs’ nuanced eye for naturalistic detail, both in exchanges and familial embraces, works in a way that other auteurs are unable to comprehend. There’s little artifice here, and the director’s textural approach gathers incredible performances from his cast (Michael Barbieri’s emphatic cadence and fiery confidence, in particular, succeeds on every level). Even Greg Kinnear, who has seemed to be buoyed in contemplatively dull films of late, imparts a warm, organic prudence in his deliveries. The actor is required to be sheepish – not a long shot, generally – but he is also giving a multilayered character his complete ability as a performer.
Here is a film that addresses contemporary conflict with wisdom, fairness, and reality. What do ever-changing landscapes mean to America? What do people mean to each other? And how does history affect the presence of morality and money? The idea that community may be a smudge in the windshield of a fast-moving car is violently present at every moment. “Little Men”, now playing at Landmark’s Ken Cinema, is smart as it is essential.