Boys’ friendship tested in gentle ‘Little Men’

Tony Calvelli (Michael Barbieri), left, and Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) become good friends in “Little Men.”
Tony Calvelli (Michael Barbieri), left, and Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) become good friends in “Little Men.”

What It’s About: Without a false or phony note, two teenagers deliver breakthrough performances in “Little Men,” an absorbing contemporary tale about true-blue friends impacted by their families’ feud.

Sensitive 13-year-old Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) moves from Manhattan to Brooklyn with his parents, struggling actor dad Brian (Greg Kinnear) and psychotherapist mom Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), into his late grandfather’s home.

Grandpa’s downstairs tenant, Lenore Calvelli (Pauline Garcia), runs a dress shop. Her outgoing son Tony (Michael Barbieri) befriends Jake, and they start hanging out. Jake, an aspiring artist, and Tony, who wants to be an actor, would like to attend the LaGuardia School for the Performing Arts (the “Fame” high school).

The boys’ friendship will be tested when the Jardines raise Lenore’s rent in a gentrified neighborhood.

Performances: Taplitz and Barbieri are naturals. These aren’t sitcom-y teenagers, but realistic kids trying to process the minefield of growing up, further complicated by grown-up conflicts that they don’t want to be a part of, and don’t understand.

Barbieri is quite strong when he goes head to head with an acting teacher (Mauricio Bustamante) in a blistering example of the craft of performance.

Kinnear is less showy as a guy still holding on to his dreams, trying to do the right thing, but not really taking feelings into consideration. It’s the kind of role he aces with a genuine lived-in quality.

Ehle (“The Ides of March”), always good, conveys the sticky mess well.

Talia Balsam is terrific in a supporting role as Brian’s sister Audrey, pushing for eviction because of the skyrocketing prices in the flipped neighborhood.

What Works: Director Ira Sachs (“Love is Strange”) authentically captures the rhythm of modern life, middle school boys, friendship bonds and family loyalties. The social issues of money, class and neighborhood gentrification are also brought up, as the tangled conflict exposes those battle lines as well.

Sachs and his co-screenwriter Mauricio Zacharius demonstrate how life can get messy, and the decisions you make might not be easy to live with — but oh, that’s life.

What Doesn’t Work: The film is a gentle slice-of-life without any frills. I like a simple story well-told, but it’s not spiffed up in any jazzy Hollywood way.

“Little Men”

Director: Ira Sachs

Starring: Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina Garcia, Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri.

Rated: PG for thematic elements, smoking and some language.

Length: 1:25