BY GARY M. KRAMER | “Little Men” is out gay filmmaker Ira Sachs’ sly, gentle comedy of manners. Not unlike his last film, “Love Is Strange,” this new drama deals with New York real estate, and like his first film, “The Delta,” it depicts the bonds that develop between two very different young men.
Brian (Greg Kinnear), an actor, and his wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) move into his late father’s Brooklyn home with their sensitive teenage son, Jake (Theo Taplitz). On the ground floor of the residence is a dress stop run by Leonor (Paulina García). Leonor’s charismatic son Tony (Michael Barbieri), a wannabe actor, soon becomes fast friends with Jake. However, when Brian and his sister Audrey (Talia Balsam) want to raise Leonor’s rent, the relationship between the adults, as well as the boys, changes.
Sachs immerses viewers in the lives of these characters as they all try to get what they want. The strong bond between the boys is palpable and tender and provides the emotional heart of Sachs’ lovely film.
The writer-director chatted about making “Little Men.”
GARY M. KRAMER: After making “Love Is Strange” did you feel compelled to pursue another New York real estate story?
IRA SACHS: I felt compelled to pursue another story, another duet, about two men in New York City. But here, the ages are young boys. I fell upon real estate again. Nothing’s more interesting. Real estate is a place where money and home become the subjects.
GMK: Like “The Delta,” this is a film about two young men, class, and sexuality. Can you discuss how these themes form a throughline in your work?
IS: The issues of class, race, and sexuality speak to me. I’m interested in those questions. Sexuality, race, and class define character as well as create drama. If you are attentive to the world with that particular viewpoint, those are the stories you find. The subject of the film is also about filmmaking in this time and as part of this system. I think that’s more relevant for gay people: How valuable are our stories?
GMK: What can you say about the dynamic between Tony and Jake? One is sensitive and polite, the other confident and cocky. Why are they such fast friends?
IS: I think Tony sees a friend, an artist, someone who has some of what he wants: a playmate, a mentee — someone he can teach. Jake has a life that looks good to Tony. And I think Tony is like Tony Manero: You judge him on the surface, but he’s a very good actor. He has a real sensitivity, and it comes from understanding people. Theo said that Tony gives Jake access to all these worlds. He’s an inherently curious boy.
There’s a lot in this relationship that mirrors the characters in “The Delta.” The Vietnamese character in that film says, “If I wasn’t gay, would you know me?” In childhood you cross lines that you can’t when you’re older. “Little Men” had a more overt sexual component — not a sexual relationship, it was a more an explicit understanding — but it felt imposed and not natural to define their sexuality. I want to make a film that is attentive to who the people are, not just the characters.
GMK: Can you talk about the contrast between the adults versus the boys?
IS: There’s conflict between the adults, but the drama is when the adult world intrudes on the kids. Their openness is taken away from them by the element of money, difference, class, judgment — all these things get in the way of something that is quite pure between these two boys.
GMK: What are your thoughts on parent/ child relationships? Brian wants to be a much better dad to Jake than it seems that he was as a son to his father.
IS: I think each character in the film is trying to be who they want to be in the eyes of others; Tony, Brian, and Leonor. Each of them fails in their expectations for themselves. In the last act, they become closest to whom they are most essentially and more comfortably. Brian is a little man who becomes a bigger man. How we feel against our parents is very key to gay men, who may feel they disappoint their parents. Being gay has altered their parents’ perspectives. Children inherently disappoint their parents, and parents disappoint their kids.
GMK: What are your observations on youth as a parent yourself?
IS: My kids are four, so I’m seeing the burgeoning creation of youth. I’m seeing the moment between infant and child. The hardest thing is to have distance on your kids and let them become who they are. You want to save them from pain.
GMK: There are lines in the film about “being adaptable” and “letting go.” Can you talk about your approach to the material, which really breathes?
IS: I’m the filmmaker, and you talk about if a film is a queer film or not a queer film. This is a queer film to me. The eye of the filmmaker is a gay man and that is specific to me. Letting go comes with maturity. You trust instincts and systems more than you maybe trust ideas. People respond to the maturity around how the story is told. There’s a rigor, but it’s more relaxed.
GMK: Can you talk about codes of masculinity in “Little Men”?
IS: I guess those things were so important to me as a 12 to 13-year-old who went from pretty much an all-girls school to an all-boys school. It was traumatic for me as a gay kid who grew up in a family of women. How do I feel as a gay man in a heterosexual film industry? There’s an alienation that one feels whatever identity you have. I’m interested in liberating those things, and in this world I did that through theater. I was involved in children’s theater in Memphis and I was free there. The kids were black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor. I felt more alive in that world — which is hard to replicate. Theater is where I felt that art was where I felt alive.
GMK: This film is almost obliquely queer. You seem to alternate between making films with queer content and telling stories that are sensitive, but not sexual. Can you talk about that thread of your work?
IS: I think it’s complicated what I respond to, what I feel, and what stories I’m interested in. I’m not attuned to the market forces. Individually I’ve spent half my life to create opportunities for LGBT artists to make work that is not for profit. Queer art. Capitalism doesn’t value our stories. That means you have to find other reasons and possibilities.
LITTLE MEN | Directed by Ira Sachs | Magnolia Pictures | Opens Aug. 5 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com | Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Film Society of Lincoln, Center, 144 W. 65th St. | filmlinc.com