Little Men was just the film I needed after the election. I’m usually good at not letting politics depress me, but Trump’s victory was a toxic pill to swallow. If the escapist Arrival soothed other Americans, I required something more cathartic. Little Men‘s low-key realism elevates the uplifting parts and then magnifies them when the heartbreak finally comes.
The film is a social parable refracted through the friendship of two boys. Jake is shy and genteel, Tony is bold and uninhibited; one Caucasian and middle-class, the other Chilean and poor. Different in every way, save for their shared love of art and theater (and videogames), they dream of attending LaGuardia High School together, until the evils of gentrification crush their friendship. Jake’s parents are landlords trying to evict Tony’s mother who can’t keep up with rising rents. For a while the boys’ friendship grows stronger the more the parents become enemies — they go so far as to boycott their parents by refusing to speak to them — but in the end, Tony and his mother are kicked out.
We glimpse a purity of spirit in this friendship. Some of the most affecting scenes show Tony scootering and Jake rollerblading down the sidewalks of Brooklyn together, as the score supplies musical notes suggesting, I don’t know… freedom? escape? a soulmate relationship hard to define? The relationship is ultimately torpedoed by the parental need to “take care of one’s own”. It’s not that Jake’s parents are bad people. Their self-interest is more pragmatic and survivalist; they have financial problems of their own. And it’s certainly not that Tony’s victimized mother is beyond criticism herself. She has a rather malicious and passive-aggressive streak. The only evil in the drama is the systematic one of income inequality mixed with urban revival projects and a vanishing middle class. I think of how Donald Trump got one third of the Hispanic vote. That’s right. People like Tony’s mother actually voted for their persecutor thinking he would be their savior from these kind of economic hardships.
On rare occasion I find that a review in pictures conveys the essence of a film better than a standard review, and so I will let the following images speak for themselves. The last three are the epilogue a year later, with Jake having made it into LaGuardia High School. He spies Tony (who of course did not get in) at a distance, on a class tour of the school. They haven’t seen or spoken to each other since their separation… nor do they speak to each other now. I broke down and wept for them, and for things no doubt to come.