Ira Sachs makes minimalist films. Instead of one major drama, he looks at all the minor dramas that happen, practically unnoticed every day. His latest film, Little Men, is no exception. It starts with Jake, a studious and sensitive teenager, going to his grandfather’s wake at a Brooklyn building that his parents are now going to inherit. He meets another teen named Tony, the son of a dress shop owner on the ground floor. The friendship between them takes off right away, but it’s a sign of the film’s realism that this is all very casual and normal—they play video games and skate around the neighborhood, and as genuine as the intimacy between them becomes, it’s also no big deal.
But when the family moves into the house, and the father, played by Greg Kinnear, discusses the inheritance with his sister who shares in it, a financial dilemma arises. The dress shop owner, played by Pauline Garcia, has a sweet deal that they can no longer afford. And she refuses even to consider their new offer, using her friendship with the grandfather as a guilt trip to keep the rent low. The truth is, she can’t afford the rent hike, so her possible eviction from the property is a definite threat to her son’s budding friendship with the son of the landlord.
This simple narrative conflict provides enough context for Sachs, and co-screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias, to create an atmosphere of threatened adolescent friendship. The boys are played by Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri—they’re the actual stars of the picture, and Sachs has evoked perfectly natural and affecting performances from them. Nabbing the great Chilean actress Garcia for the picture was a coup. Her plight is certainly more sympathetic than that of Kinnear’s wealthier character, but she acts annoying at times, which balances things out. This is the way things work in a Sachs film—there are no heroes or villains, just people who all have their reasons. Little Men gives us reason to believe in the potential for modest virtues in a film.
And now a quick mention of another film that played here earlier this year rather briefly, but which I got to see in a streaming format. Laurie Anderson, long-time independent New York artist and musician, has given us a film essay called Heart of a Dog. Always prone to using the little things in life to explore the deepest issues, Anderson uses her relationship with her beloved little terrier, Lolabelle, as a springboard for meditations on identity, suffering, the strangeness of post-9/11 politics, and mortality, especially mortality, with the death of her dog further evoking a death that is not mentioned, that of Anderson’s husband, the musician Lou Reed.
Mixing new and found footage with home movies, photos, and animation, Anderson’s main instrument is actually her voice, and her lilting, incantatory rhythm gradually gets a hold on you and draws you into the film’s many reveries and speculations. By the time she reenacts the voyage through the bardos recounted in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, you may have achieved a cinematically altered state. Her humor and light touch support a striving towards wisdom more serious than you will usually find in a movie. Heart of a Dog succeeds in touching on universal truths, not least when its style is most personal.