On paper, this is a well-wrought dilemma, pitting New Yorkers with understandable points of view against each other without a clear solution. Brian is right to think that Leonor shouldn’t expect to pay the same rock-bottom rent indefinitely, and Leonor is right to think that her years of friendship with Brian’s father make her more than a tenant, subject to a sudden tripling in rent (which still, Brian points out, puts her well below market level). In practice, though, the tense exchanges between Brian and Leonor could have been imported from a middling off-Broadway play. Kinnear brings a subtle sense of conflict to the role—early on, after his father’s memorial service, the camera catches him saving his tears for a moment alone during clean-up—but spends a lot of the movie in goggle-eyed consternation. García expertly shows Leonor’s manipulative side, but she, too, barely has opportunity to change facial expressions.
Sachs does much stronger work observing the friendship between Jake and Tony. He has a willingness to watch his young characters during low-key interactions, even if it means devoting minutes on end to kids doing acting-class exercises (Tony, also applying to LaGuardia, wants to act) or hanging out at an all-ages dance club. Tony wants to start chasing girls, and there’s a delicate ambiguity about whether Jake is more reticent due to natural shyness, or a different form of blossoming sexuality that he may not yet feel comfortable sharing with anyone, even his best friend. Sachs (Love Is Strange), working in rich colors and an unobtrusive (borderline static) camera, has come a long way since the stilted Married Life, and takes vivid snapshots of being young in New York.
That’s not to say, though, that none of Little Men is stilted. When an adult woman says to her young son, “You should applaud your father for being adaptable,” it’s hard to tell if Sachs is telegraphing her background as a therapist, or if it’s just that his New Yorkers sometimes sound as foreign to the rhythms of human speech as Woody Allen’s. (Leonor isn’t as formalized, but she does sometimes speak in a bluntly expositional way that also recalls sub-vintage Allen.) The adult-centric material, especially when it’s not viewed through the kids’ eyes, doesn’t have the same naturalistic verve, even as it deals with recognizable real-world problems.