The films of Ira Sachs always send me to the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) to remind me of his credits.
Because “an artist,” the old saying goes, “hammers the same nail over and over again.”
Knowing he did the quietly charming “Love is Strange” as well as “Keep the Lights On” and “The Delta,” character studies with a minimum of motivating incidents and gay texts or subtexts, is a help in figuring out what he’s getting at.
And I have to go to IMDb every time because, to be blunt, the films are that forgettable.
“Little Men” is an 85 minute Brooklyn melodrama about two artistically-inclined teen boys and the rental dispute between their families that threatens their friendship.
The kids are engagingly written, complicated in a quickly sketched-out way. Theo Taplitz plays Jake, the budding painter whose parents (Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle) just inherited the husband’s father’s apartment, and the storefront where aspiring actor Tony (Michael Barbieri) sometimes helps out his seamstress mom (Paulina Garcia). She is a Chilean immigrant, separated from her absent husband, who has long had a dress shop there.
Leonor (Garcia) hasn’t seen an increase in rent in forever. And under-employed and pushing-50 actor Brian (Kinnear) is being pressured by his sister (Talia Balsam) to get more rent — a lot more. Brian’s moved his family into his father’s apartment, which means his therapist wife (Ehle) isn’t their sole means of support.
That move is how Tony met Jake. They bond in an instant the way kids do, and before the summer is out, they’re plotting joint admission to an arts-oriented magnet school.
But every time Brian brings up rent, Leonor (“Leo”) lashes out, about how he wasn’t a good son, about how his father considered her his “real” family, about how Brian was such a disappointment to his father.
Brian, being played by the moist-eyed Kinnear, is on the verge of tears after every discussion. Wife Kathy announces she’s trained in conflict resolution, but she gets nowhere with Leo, who runs down their family, in Spanish, to the old family friend (Alfred Molina) who checks in on her.
Meanwhile, the boys get along great, even if they face the odd blast of teen taunting, often with a homophobic bent.
“Tony has a new BOYfriend!”
Sachs includes a long, funny scene in Tony’s summer acting workshop, and nothing of a parallel nature for Jake, who plainly has a crush on Tony, who just as plainly is interested in girls.
The kids stand out, Kinnear has added “haggard” to his gang-dog persona as he’s aged, and the saddest scenes here might be Brian taking on Chekhov’s “The Seagull” for a non-profit theater company, a job that pays little and will lead nowhere, and he knows it.
Ehle has too little to do, with Garcia (“Gloria,” “The 33”) having the chewy scenes — flashes of bitterness and helplessness.
But “Little Men” doesn’t come to grips with much of anything, leaving relationships and questions of sexuality and even Leonor’s uncertain future uncertain.
It’s a collection of scenes, vignettes and character sketches, Life in Brooklyn with a hint of melodrama. Realistic enough, compelling in the mildest sense, it’s just not all that interesting.
Which is why I’ll be tracking down Sachs’ credits the next time he gets something on the big screen. I’ll have forgotten this one as well.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, smoking and some language
Cast: Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri, Paulina Garcia, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Alfred Molina
Credits: Directed by Ira Sachs, script by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:25