“I have begun to think of this film as a metaphor for the place of personal cinema in our culture,” Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange, Keep the Lights On) told me one recent morning over coffee in New York’s Marlton Hotel. He was referring to his new movie, Little Men, which includes gentrification among its themes. When white married couple Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) inherit Brian’s father’s house in Brooklyn, they move there from Manhattan and face a tough decision: Should they allow the Chilean owner of the dress shop downstairs, Leonor (Paulina García) to remain and continue to pay rent that’s thousands of dollars below market value or kick her out? Since Brian’s an unsuccessful actor, his family could use the boost in salary that another tenant would provide. Complicating the plot is the quick bond Brian and Kathy’s 13-year-old son Jake (Theo Taplitz) forms with Leonor’s similarly aged son Tony (Michael Barbieri). The ensuing drama carefully props up each character’s situation on another’s, deliberately transmitting everyone’s motivation and dilemma to the viewer. To describe his movie succinctly in interviews, Sachs has been borrowing a quote from Jean Renoir: “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has their reasons.”
The phrase “quietly devastating” could have been invented to describe this movie. It is patient, it is keenly observed, and it is acted impeccably, especially by teens Taplitz and Barbieri. The latter has prodigious charisma that portends a future superstar. While generally sober, Sachs finds levity in some brilliant one-off scenes, like one that takes place in a matinee nightclub for kids or the film’s show-stopping centerpiece in which Barbieri’s character spars with his acting coach in a Meisner repetition exercise. The joys of Little Men are varied and numerous.
Sachs and I discussed his intricate plotting, Jake’s pre-gay sensibility, and making a quiet movie like this in an industry that is increasingly blaring with blockbuster bombast. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
Gawker: The plot of Little Men would have taken up five minutes in another movie about a family that moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Maybe we would have seen a cameo from the woman who was pushed out downstairs. Refreshingly, here it’s the story, and the woman is a principal character.
Ira Sachs: I think the actors and the people who paid for the film and myself, we understand that in a way, there’s nothing that’s bigger than these very small moments—the drama that’s going on in these people’s lives. And more personal in some ways, in terms of each of our attempts to hold onto our homes and take care of our families or ourselves. These are the questions of every single day.
I think in a way, all of my films are about economics and intimacy and how the two interplay. Economics being central to both character and drama—not narrowing but being part of the texture of who we are in the world and how we get through our days.
Given the economic climate, exploring that relationship is more pertinent than ever.
When I read the papers and I think about the challenges people are facing—immigration, neighborhoods, class difference, racial disparity—it’s like, it’s sort of what the story is about in one block. I think it speaks to things of our time.
Did you choose to shoot in Williamsburg for that reason?
In my mind, [the neighborhood depicted] is a fictional neighborhood. It’s not an exact neighborhood. In my fictional world it’s more Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst. That corner of Williamsburg is a longtime Italian community.
We found that in location scouting, the number of people who said, “This is what I’m going through”...it was pretty much 50 percent of the stores we walked into who said [situations similar to the plot of Little Men] is what they’re facing. I wanted a neighborhood that had that history but that also wasn’t a neighborhood that had already moved into a totally different economic place. It wasn’t 7th Avenue in Park Slope, where I’m sure this stuff happens but it’s not as transitional in terms of its economic history. The acting school, all those kids were from Bay Ridge. You have a very particular mix that I think gives the film authenticity.
I do—“empathy” is maybe a better word. The more empathy I have for the characters, the more potential I have to understand and portray them. It’s kind of like why directing is not totally different from being a psychotherapist. There is a sense that anyone who comes into your room has value, and your job is to have empathy and analytic ability. That’s what I look for in a therapist. Both of those things need to be prime. If one trumps the other, you get into sentimentality or exploitation.
This story is so carefully constructed. Everyone’s situations are propped up on each other’s—the kids’ connection is at the mercy of their parents’ feud, for example.
I think that was the thing that took the most rigor in making the film, from the script [to the] shooting, but really in editing was [where the movie found] refinement. That took a lot of shaving and decision-making. When I now watch the film, it begins very open and wide and as it plays it becomes narrower and more focused on these five characters. It becomes very theatrical, and much more intense than I might have known, by the last act of the movie. Not to compare in terms of quality, but there’s almost an Ibsen quality. For me, watching with an audience, it feels like a suspense film of emotion. And that’s satisfying.
I really wanted to make a film about kids from an adult perspective, but that also had some of the qualities of cinema that as a kid I really loved. Specifically, I wanted to make a movie about childhood that wasn’t about cartoons or superheroes, but that was just as significant and just as accessible. How the market hits that is really interesting, meaning that the market defines what our young people will see based on capitalism and the modes of operation. I have begun to think of this film as a metaphor for the place of personal cinema in our culture. In a way, you can look at the dress shop as that kind of film. You can also say, “It doesn’t work economically in terms of the greater systems of capitalism.” And yet, there’s still value.
What does that mean for you practically speaking? When you think about making a movie like this, what is the best-case scenario in terms of reach? That it’s a sleeper hit? That it does $40 million, like a Woody Allen-sized hit?
No, no. I’m not naive to think those numbers. That it finds a distributor, that it finds an audience, and that it’s well-received. And that individuals enjoy and appreciate it. That’s partially what you have to do as a filmmaker. The fact that you like it means something to me. You have to hold onto those interpersonal experiences. There was a decision in the course of making this film not to go to one of the larger outlets, meaning the television outlets. That, in a way, gave the possibility for this film to be released individually in countries throughout the world. There was a question of: Do you go the global route, or do you go the individual theatrical distributor route? We chose to go that [latter] route. This is a larger question, because what Netflix and Amazon are doing are taking away the role of the arthouse distributor internationally. They can’t participate in the global economy.
So those movies just don’t get seen?
They get seen but not in the theater. And not in the theater means the end of arthouse distribution in those territories and the end of arthouse theaters in those territories, if they become obsolete in the economy. Interesting things are happening post-Sundance. Because of the clout and economic power of these new distribution models, meaning Netflix and Amazon, independent distributors are for the first time getting involved in production. They want to get involved earlier in order not to lose all potential content.
Your decision was cultural? Moral?
Not moral. Maybe the residual effect has a moral-like support of a particular economy, but the challenge of distributing on an instant global platform as opposed to a neighborhood platform is you are not part of the cultural conversation. You’re just in the culture. You’ve skipped the moment of interaction in some ways. A good example for me is Pee-Wee Herman’s movie [2016's Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday]. We all heard, “Pee-Wee Herman’s making a movie.”
It came and it went.
You saw a TV review and that’s it. That happened. People are probably watching that movie, maybe more [than would have if it were distributed otherwise], but there’s no place where it interacts with you.
I probably would have covered that as a movie, but as a Netflix special, I didn’t even watch it. And I have Netflix. It’s still on my list.
The story of this film is a minor story—how the movie’s made, how it’s distributed—but it’s also a major story because it represents larger truths of our economy and of our time.
There are hints that Jake might be queer, but that’s never explicitly stated. I wonder why you went that route.
Ultimately, as a director it did not feel comfortable or authentic to impose a future on either of these kids. Occasionally, when I considered the more explicit [telling], it felt more disconnected from these particular boys. I think that’s because when I started to cast, it was clear to me that for kids this age, there’s a very big difference between 12, 13, and 14. Maybe not just the numbers, but kids who are pre-aware of their sexuality, involved with the questions of their sexuality, or know their sexuality. I think these kids—particularly Jake—were on the pre side. I felt that as soon as I cast the film.
That said, my films are very personal and I think there’s a way in which Jake reflects my sensibility as a gay man. The film was also inspired by my husband, who moved to New York from Ecuador with his single mother and lived in Williamsburg and was a visual artist and ended up going to LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts and discovering both the possibility of the life he lives as an artist and as a gay man. There was this thing that creative lives can sometimes do for people.
And this way, you avoid telling yet another coming-out story.
I felt that a film about a primal friendship was one I hadn’t seen enough of. When I show that film to audiences, I ask if people had that kind of friendship and about half the audience raises their hand remembering some particular childhood friend.
It’s also modern to not bog yourself down with labels. Kids today are more queer than ever but seem to dislike stating as much.
I have this retrospective at MoMA, and part of what’s interesting is to have to consider the work I’ve done since I’ve started making films, narratively, as a story. I made a film called The Delta early on, which is really about the tortuous nature of a young man’s acceptance of his own sexuality and the aftershock that torture creates for other people—the consequences of the closet. The difference of tone in this film reflects the difference in our times. I think really what it reflects is that I was more tortured myself as a 28-year-old man making The Delta. The film has a fraught nature that is not reflective of my life today.
Did you notice any difference in terms of funding or response given that this film is less explicitly gay than many of your others, including the two that preceded it?
Those are always factors. The choices we make in terms of who we tell stories about are profoundly affected by our culture and economy. None of us can resist that dialectic. I would say it matters as much that I chose to make a film about a Chilean woman instead of a white American woman. That has an impact on the reception.
What this movie really captures for me is being a kid and feeling trapped—like there’s nothing you can do to change your situation because of your lack of power.
I think what’s happening in that moment is that you’re also aware of how things work. And part of that awareness is growing up.
Little Men is in select theaters today.