Ira Sach's latest film Little Men begins in a chaotic classroom with a mousy boy in the eye of the maelstrom. The boy, eighth-grader Jake Jardine, is intent on his drawing, an abstract scene of yellow stars sitting in a green sky. After scaring the children back into their seats, his teacher shuffles down the aisle and looks over his shoulder, offering a comment about the improbability of such a skyscape. As early on as the opening scene, the film hints at the ways in which adults seem to fail children, and thus force them to mature.
Ira Sachs, whose MOMA mid-career retrospective just finished up last week, has built a career on examining gay relationships and social issues, often with the nuance of city life. He pays attention to the shadowy details like an expert photographer would, careful not to overexpose the subtleties.
In his most recent effort, he's shifted his focus further down the age spectrum. The film examines burgeoning friendship between two young teenage boys amidst a class dispute. To him, the film is partially about the cocktail of emotions that can embitter this time of rapid growth and learning.
"I really love movies about childhood," he explains. "I think there's something inherently cinematic about that time. I feel like there's a lot of childhood that's vivid and very serious, as well as being joyous."
Such is the function of memory in our prepubescent years, where everything is momentous, world-shattering, and that much more colorful in remembrance.
Little Men begins to unfold as a melodrama should, when the death of Jake's grandfather sees his family moving to Brooklyn to live in the brownstone he left behind. Following the wake, they meet the downstairs dress shop owner Leonor and her preteen son Tony. Leonor had been close to Jake's grandfather and was paying a rent far cheaper than what the developing neighborhood would demand of a tenant, causing conflict for Jake's father Brian as he is left to adjust her lease.
Sachs explains that the film's central conflict was one directly witnessed by his cowriter Mauricio Zacharias, whose family had a store in Rio and had to begin evicting a tenant who failed to pay rent.
"I thought this is very dramatic, and it's also clear to me that there are two sides to the story: there's the person who owns the building and the person who's trying to hold onto her store," Sachs explains about the muddled nature of the film's generational and economic conflict. "The question of how people hold onto their homes and the challenges they face in doing so is universal and timeless."
The film never resorts to sensation for its emotional power. Instead, it relies on the way young Jake and Tony navigate the quieter moments surrounding a conflict bigger than themselves and their parents. The issue of gentrification is wholly there, but Little Men examines it in a fashion with less of an eye to its systemic properties and more focus on how it plays out in individual agreements.
Sachs thought that the commentary would ring true for New York and dozens of other American cities, but he was interested more in the humanistic battlefield that this issue is fought on. "[I try to] find a good story that I feel really feel is resonant on a number of different levels to an audience and can bring up a lot of things that are of this moment and our lives, but my focus is really on the story and the characters. That's what I try to be attentive to."
His film is one that peels back the layers of the dispute over rent-raising and grandfather Jardine's last wishes into the parent-child divide that forms and the realizations these boundaries create. It's the quiet scenes of the boys scootering and rollerblading through the neighborhood, attending a community acting class, and encountering the tiny disappointments of the day-to-day that coalesce into the film's emotional weight. Jake learns that his father hasn't lived up to his goals as an actor, and listens to his sermon on how throwing away his drawings could teach him about impermanence. Tony speaks of his father in Angola, how he never sees him but occasionally receives gifts in the mail.
Both want to attend LaGuardia High School to study the arts, and offscreen they prepare their applications during their vow of silence against their parents, as the rent dispute begins to boil over. Their friendship is forged across difference, and strengthened by their shared coming-to-terms with the imperfection and humanity of their caregivers. Just on the cusp of their teenage years, it's a Salinger-esque loss of innocence that they foster amongst shared observations of their parents. Little Men seems to create two divergent worlds of experience, with neither generation recognizing the other's motivations and actions.
In casting for the film, Sachs wanted to select two leads who were somewhere in the middle of seeming like boys and looking like men. The characters of Jake and Tony are liminal ones, something that he wanted to reflect both in their physical appearance and social interactions onscreen.
"They're not fully formed and their sexuality is in question," Sachs offers, "But it's almost like pre- when these issues become more pressing, it's like there's a freedom of being in that age in terms of who you might be that I think is exciting."
Outcomes of the property dispute aside, the more pressing audience realization is over the transience of these young boys' relationship and how it marks a watershed, after which they'll have to start marking memories as occasions for learning. Jake and Tony see that everyone can attempt to do right, and all the involved parties can still end up hurt.
For Sachs, the film explores the way that the boys will have to face down their relationship, and learn the pain of retrospect. "They kind of experience the sense that something is in the past for the first time in their lives. Childhood is so immediate and present tense."
He adds, "Part of the emotion of the film is realizing that some things can be over."