Gentrification is a distinctively 21st century problem, that is near impossible for society to tackle without bankrupting itself in the process. Sure, the process has been occurring since the 3rd century, but in a capitalist world keen to renovate the most deprived inner city areas, it is happening all around us more than ever before. Small businesses replaced by chain stores who can actually afford to pay the rent, lower income families shifted out of their homes to favour the affluent higher classes who can afford to live there with the raised prices.
New York City is undoubtedly the personification of gentrification. Times Square, for example, has been transformed from a corrupt, porn theatre-ridden cesspit into a big shiny celebration of the American Dream. Shiny adverts hundreds of feet high, the world’s largest brands having gigantic stores and thousands of sightseers taking selfies no matter where you look; Times Square has been so gentrified, it feels like an amusement park without rollercoasters.
The Changing Face of Brooklyn
Elsewhere in the city that never sleeps we have the suburb of Brooklyn, the setting for director Ira Sachs’ latest film, Little Men. Over recent years, this town has transformed into something equally unrecognisable; it would be unthinkable to imagine Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese setting one of their gritty movies in such a gentrified suburb today.
Little Men is a quiet character study that manages to demonstrate the effect gentrification has on two families, without ever uttering that word or making it a thesis rallying against the modernisation of different communities. That being said, Sachs isn’t fully successful with making the political feel personal.
Struggling actor Brian Jardine (Greg Kinnear) moves his family into the former home of his deceased father, which they have inherited. His dad had rented out the space downstairs to an independent clothes store run by Hispanic immigrant Leonore (Paulina Garcia). Finding out that his father was a friend to the family and charging them shockingly low amounts of rent, Brian and his sister attempt to drive up the price in a way that is more in-line with rent prices in the local area, whilst still being affordable for a struggling family.
These tensions are further complicated by the unexpected friendship between the two teenage sons; Tony (Michael Barbieri), the motor mouth son of Leonore and Jake (Theo Taplitz) the introverted son of Brian soon collude to end the familial conflicts of their elders with disastrous results.
It is incredibly clear that Sachs has a thematic obsession with bureaucracy, even if politics never personally introduces itself in his films. His prior effort, the masterful Love is Strange, depicted an elderly gay couple whose marriage cost them a job and therefore the money to live in their New York apartment.
Although more focused on the stigma that still exists around same sex relationships, the movie still navigated around the theme of ordinary people having their lives infinitely complicated by red tape and societal restrictions, even in one of the most famously liberal cities in the world.
A Character Study that focuses on the wrong characters
Little Men is more of a political statement than Love is Strange, although you shouldn’t expect any Ken Loach-style left-wing pandering in the aim of simplifying a complex problem in society for mass consumption. Instead, Sachs nobly decides to make his film solely a character study, with all the major political implications of the narrative occurring entirely in the peripherals of the narrative.
Instead of making an obvious statement about the uneasy relationship between urban gentrification, immigrants and the lower classes, he focuses entirely on the crumbling relationships between the characters which are all caused by powers beyond their control.
A major flaw here is that, for a work of realism, not all the characters feel believable. It is incredibly easy to buy into the increasingly stubborn fury of the adults, all wanting the best deal on the rent, especially when both parties struggle to make ends meet in such an affluent neighbourhood.
Yet the friendship between the two teenage sons feels entirely inexplicable: both have different personalities, yet the friendship still blossoms in a way that isn’t written in a fathomable manner. Neither character has their personality affected by the arrival of somebody with contrasting behaviour, and as we spend more time with them than the gentrified woes of the adults, it can’t help but feel underwritten and under developed when it comes to characters.
For a film with such a slight running time, with less than 80 minutes passing before the arrival of the end credits, it is somewhat frustrating to see Sachs making the friendship of the sons the main focal point. There is an incredibly timely and insightful look into a major societal issue occurring in the background. Instead, we are treated to excursions to child acting classes and matinee dance clubs for teenage kids, both of which are insufferable and hold little relevance to the plot as a whole.
You could argue that seeing such events held for the youth is a satirical portrait of the benefits of living in a gentrified middle class urban environment. In execution, all they do is further detract time from exploring the central themes and the familial rifts.
Little Men has received enormous critical acclaim, yet I can’t view it as anything other than a missed opportunity. Sachs does demonstrate his ability to make fantastic character dramas, with an ear for realistic dialogue and a satirical swipe at the middle classes. But by viewing the turbulent events through younger eyes he has sidestepped the opportunity to make an important film that deals with serious issues head on.
I understand his directorial intent was to view the situation from the eyes of innocent bystanders, thrown into a complex disagreement that they haven’t got the power to halt, which is why it is a crying shame that he didn’t make the children anywhere near as interesting as the adults.
Which films best represent the changing face of Brooklyn in the 21st century?
Little Men is now available for streaming in the UK via WeAreColony. It will be released on DVD/Blu-Ray in the US on December 13. All international release dates are here.
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