Spoilers abound in this post, so if you haven’t seen Ira Sach’s latest film, I’m about to ruin the ending for you. Okay?
There were about 15 minutes left of Little Men when I thought to myself, “This indie flick totally measures up to the glowing critic reviews—it’s subtle, complex, and focuses on a really relevant topic.” And then the ending forced me to reconsider what I had just watched.
Little Men is about two young teenaged boys from either side of the tracks, socio-economically speaking. A white family in Manhattan inherits a Brooklyn building, which includes a street-level dress shop that makes little-to-no money. The store is run by a Hispanic single mother who is savvy enough to know what’s coming. The heart of the story is the friendship between the boys, Jake and Tony, who are for the most part unaware of the growing severity of their parents’ dispute.
Sachs deserves a lot of credit for how he represents the conflict of gentrification on a personal level. Every character here is believable and draws out our empathy. There are no black hats. But while this human-level approach makes for clearly motivated characters critical to the film’s success, Sachs fails to address the big fallacy of gentrification, that it is a natural and inevitable process where there are no villains but only good intentions. Little Men attempts to portray gentrification as a process that equally affects the gentrifier and gentrified, but trying to artificially level the stakes of a white landlord family—the father has the luxury of failing at acting while the mother supports them with her psychiatry income—with those of a struggling immigrant family creates a false premise.
There are hollow liberal ethics at play here that ultimately form a cynical view of redressing privilege. At no point does the landlord family entertain any alternative to their course of action—perhaps because Sachs, like most of us, cannot imagine one—nor does the shop tenant put forward an action plan to adapt. Both sides of the dispute are intractable because the storyteller here accepts a conservative position that life is tough and our system is immutable. The underperforming dress shop must be shuttered. That’s just the way it is. What other options are there?
There’s no question whose gaze we possess as viewers. If we saw things through the immigrant family’s experience, there would be no swelling crescendo of music at the end or coming-of-age wistfulness for Jake. A middle-aged single mother has lost her main source of income, and the likelihood of further disadvantage for her family has increased.
While both boys applied to art school, only Jake makes it in—an outcome that feels gross considering his father’s predictive outburst when he tells Tony his application will be rejected, not to mention the pep talk he gives to Jake later that implies success is his birthright.
The final scene in an art gallery is what unraveled things for me. On a field trip, Jake and his art school classmates silently sketch paintings on the wall when he notices Tony with his school friends on the other side of the gallery. While Jake and his peers are solemn and focused, Tony’s crowd jokes around; they are unserious non-artists. Jake’s father was right: his son is the talented one deserving of this opportunity, not Tony.
Like earlier in the film, when Jake rollerbladed through his new multiethnic neighbourhood, he becomes an outside observer of his non-white peers, forever separated from them by the racially informed economic brutalism that underwrites his success in life. Because that’s just the way the system works. What could we possibly do to change things?
Cue swelling music.