At this point in my “Year with Kinnear,” it’s easy to group each newly-reviewed movie by genre or theme with Greg’s already-reviewed similar roles. Some of this is not very exciting. For instance, I could tell you Greg cut his teeth on Sabrina and subsequently starred in a lot of rom coms. So could Twitter. But then–thanks to this project–I can add the snobbish “well, actually” coupled with a lot of information you didn’t know about Greg Kinnear. Well actually…his favorite genre might be black comedies and he’s starred in many of them and helmed one for his directorial debut. That’s nice, you say, but Greg’s also been in a lot of family-friendly biopics like Invincible and Heaven is for Real. Well actually, I say, he played porn addict Bob Crane in the definitely-not-family-friendly Auto Focus and that’s his best biopic.
The current movie under review, Little Men, is a fantastic character drama that fits into two buckets-“dad Kinnear” and “art Kinnear.” I already well actually‘d the myth that Greg is often cast as a model fatherly figure. He’s played many on–screen dads, but most of them are flawed. The same is true in Little Men, where Greg is a non-confrontational dad chasing a non-profitable acting career who ultimately steps up when forced to make difficult family decisions. It’s Greg’s most nuanced fatherly role. As an actor-playing-an-actor, Greg also checks the box of “art Kinnear.” He loves playing artists–be it writers, musicians, and actors–and moreso if the movie extols the virtues of art. Little Men is firmly centered on art, focused on a coming of age story of two young boys aspiring to be artists and looking to Greg for advice. It’s Greg’s best art-centric film yet and a hidden gem.
Little Men (2016)
Written & directed by Ira Sachs, the movie follows the friendship of eighth-grade boys Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri. At the movie’s outset, Theo learns that his grandpa has died and moves into his grandpa’s old apartment in Brooklyn with his parents (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle). The apartment sits above a dress shop run by Paulina García and her son Michael. While Theo and Michael become fast friends, Greg and his sister learn that Paulina pays very little rent for the ground-level space they’ve also inherited from their deceased father. His sister urges Greg to raise the rent on a new lease. This starts a series of tense interactions between Greg and Paulina as he drafts a new lease and she either avoids him or uses manipulative sentimental tactics to stall negotiations.
While this plot plays out in the background ignored by Theo and Michael, their growing friendship takes center stage. Both kids are aspiring artists (Theo a graphic artist; Michael an actor) who want to complete their portfolios and apply for LaGuardia High School. Beyond this, the two boys are quite dissimilar. Theo is a shy introvert with few friends, while Michael is an extrovert with lots of extracurricular activities. Theo mostly tags along on Michael-initiated activities: rollerblading through the park, acting classes, and attending a teen rave. But the two boys also do ‘boy things’ like playing videogames and talking about their crushes–with a twist. Michael has a crush on a girl in his acting class (until she rejects him citing an interest in older boys in one of the film’s many tender scenes) and persistently asks Theo who he likes. Theo dodges the question, with the clear implication that he’s attracted to Michael.
As their tenant-landlord relationship deteriorates, Paulina and Greg prohibit their sons from playing with each other. The boys respond as you’d expect; deciding to give their parents the silent treatment. This infuriates both parents, but particularly Greg. After the premier of his new play, both boys refuse to give him feedback and he has to be verbally restrained by Jennifer to not completely lose it. Paulina continues to avoid Greg and even puts up a ‘help wanted’ sign in the dress shop. This is the final straw for Greg (how can she hire a new employee but not pay rent?!) and he moves to evict Paulina. Michael tells Theo of his mom’s eviction, and in a last-ditch effort Theo breaks his silence and begs his parents to let Paulina stay and pay low rent. But this is real life, and Paulina is evicted. In the movie’s coda, Theo gets into LaGuardia High School and is on a field trip to an art museum. He looks across a large hall and sees Michael, who wears the uniform of a different school and interacts with his new friends.
While its plot is simple, Little Men excels on many levels. It’s a tender coming of age story, with outstanding acting from both teenagers. Michael has an incredible New York accent, to boot. The movie also shows more than it tells, with deft editing and no un-wasted scenes. This compact script packs an emotional punch and allows for a sympathetic exploration of complex themes like gentrification. Finally, the movie’s title has a double meaning, with the adult female characters showing greater strength and independence than the male ones. Jennifer is the family breadwinner and a therapist, who mediates conflict between Greg and Paulina and urges Greg to be a better parent. Paulina has the strong independence of a single mom & business owner and fiery nature to gain the high ground in lease conversations with Greg. Finally, it’s Greg’s sister who convinces him to demand a higher rent and evict Paulina. The women clearly wear the pants in this movie, and it’s all the better for it.
With a weaker script and a lesser actor, Greg’s character would’ve come off as an unloving son, uncaring landlord, and unmotivated father. In this space, I want to quickly explore each of these descriptors and describe how Greg’s performance delivers a sympathetic and complex family patriarch.
First, Paulina knows she can’t afford a fair rent and so attempts to shame Greg as an unloving son into cutting her a deal. She claims Greg never visited his father and his father’s wish was for her to stay. When Paulina coldly says “I was more his family than you were,” Greg responds in more resignation than anger with “That’s a ridiculous thing to say.” It’s a perfectly delivered line, but also makes us wonder if Greg was a good son. He certainly loved his father, and the clue to that is an early scene. After the guests leave his father’s in-home wake, Greg takes out the garbage. Alone outside the apartment, Greg breaks down sobbing. It’s the first time I’ve seen Greg cry, which in itself is notable (and excellent). But more than that, it reveals that Greg loved his father even if he has regrets.
Second, on paper Pauline–as an immigrant, small business owner, and single mother–is clearly the victim of gentrification. But far from a ruthless landlord, Greg imbues his character with sympathy and timidity. He opines to his sister if their father would approve of evicting Paulina. He worries to his wife about the damage eviction will do to their son’s first real friendship. But when they both urge Greg to draft a new lease and later evict Paulina, Greg timidly steps up and owns his responsibility to have these hard conversations. In these scenes, Greg’s acting portrays sympathy (for Paulina’s plight) coupled with non-negotiability (on making the necessary decision for his family). I absolutely love that Greg isn’t brash (which our culture often mistakes for strength) nor is he weak.
Granted, Greg could get a real job to earn the money his family needs instead of raising the rent. But (1) that’s a mixed message for Ira Sachs to send and (2) Greg’s career as an earnest-if-unsuccessful artist is an essential component of his loving relationship with his son. Late in the movie, Greg again steps into a hard conversation when he moves to comfort Theo over his now-broken friendship. The conversation encapsulates the supportive and earnest father Greg’s portrayed throughout the movie: he wants Theo to pursue art and apply for a tough high school but he also wants Theo to recognize the limits of trying too hard and burning out. Flexing his acting range, Greg’s earlier outburst at Theo’s silent treatment stemmed from this disappointment that he couldn’t share his art as a performer with his own son. In sum, Greg delivers a nuanced and mighty fine performance.
- Little Men is a tender character drama that is a coming of age story set against the realities of gentrification in NYC.
- The script is exceptional for its restraint, while the entire cast–but especially Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri–give great performances.
- Greg wears his “dad” and “art” hats, as he plays a loving but non-confrontational father figure. The nuance of his character and acting results in one of my favorite roles.
- Next-Up: Let’s go back-to-back with the two Ira Sachs’ movies Greg stars in. Which means Frankie is next.
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