Class fragilities in Little Men

Arguably the most screen-capped moment of Little Men, the movie directed by Ira Sachs and written alongside Mauricio Zacharias, is an art-housey shot of the films’s protagonists shown moments after descending into a New York subway. The compatriots scamper down a flight of stairs to their platform, their feet so percussive it feels purposeful, taking their place that cylindrical hollow. As if separated by space-time itself, rather than circumstance, it’s a deliberate foreshadowing of things to come – two boys, two micro dimensions apart. In this scene the gravity of the surrounding story becomes deeply evident, spelled out through organisations of their posture as much as through soundtrack or dialogue, hovering in emotional purgatory. One teen stands with his arms crossed, leaning on a rail, while the other cocks his head, asymmetrical, casually looking off into the distance.

Released at the beginning of 2016, Little Men is based in a particularly schmaltzy part of Brooklyn, a suburb which is seen to be quite far along in the process of gentrification, and it refers to its accompanying sociopolitics. It starts with a by the books, semi-liberal white family moving into an apartment they have inherited from the father’s family, after the father’s death. Greg Kinnear plays this dad, Brian Jardine, a floundering and ill-considered white actor with inflated self-belief in spite of his lack of real achievements, and Jennifer Ehle plays his wife Kathy, a psychotherapist who is not as present in the proceedings of the film – she is in fact mostly faceless – but is the family’s sole breadwinner.

What is most notable about the couple is their sense of determination about occupying this space and living in it, despite not paying rent and having already owned a home prior to their move. It’s an entitlement that lingers at the back of the minds of progressives involved in this sort of dialogue, who may not have their own estates, but look forward to inheriting wealth from the generations above them. They adopt this – for lack of a better phrase – American attitude, believing they deserve this and nothing less. This can be discerned if only from the flippant and tone-deaf way that they treat the issue and interact with each other generally.

Their son Jake is a quietly ambitious, focused and creative pre-teen, and keeps to himself. He remains lonely and friendless at school, bullied for his implied sexuality and effeminate demeanour. But Jake becomes rescued; he makes a new friend in Tony, who defends Jake from his tormentors, the taller kids with steadier gaits and self-aggrandising dispositions. A quaint observation to make during an initial watching is that Tony’s attitude is notably more New Jersey than New York, which does not make his character any less authentic or charming.

The main interpersonal struggle occurring in Little Men is the one taking place between the parents of Jake and Tony. Theirs is a conflict that trickles down in all of its cruelty to the friendship of the two young protagonists, its very make-up inflicting itself indiscriminately. After inheriting his father’s estate, which includes a small shop at the bottom of the building, Jake’s parents Kathy and Brian enter into negotiations with the woman working in the shop, Tony’s mother Leonor. Leonor is a Latina woman who is decidedly less fortunate in comparison to the Jardines, who realistically do not need to raise the rent to survive.

But the Jardines see it as a potential lost opportunity if they let Leonor ‘get away’ with paying a third of the property’s apparent value. Simply put, they have the luxury of choice, where Leonor does not. What can Leonor do if she has to live beyond her means? Therein comes the main philosophical question that Sachs raises. Is displacement as inevitable, and structural, as it is often made out to be, or do the gentrifiers have more agency than they claim? Does altruism come into this? An ethical redistribution of privilege means leaving a piece of the pie for someone else. As Solange sings on the track ‘Junie’ from A Seat at the table, ‘don’t want to do the dishes, just want to eat the food.’

In an earlier Overland essay, Chad Parkill argues that disdain for hipsters, who are often the first sign of gentrification, is a misguided anger that falls flat when you really consider their options, and he’s not entirely wrong. ‘Hipsters in Footscray cannot simply “fuck off” back to the urban enclaves they have come from,’ he says, as ‘the rents in those places are too high for their incomes, and their arrival in another down-at-heel or traditionally working-class suburb would only see the drama of gentrification displaced elsewhere.’ But I find myself disagreeing with Chad that ‘“hipsters” are often as much the victims of gentrification as they are its agents.’ Because even though that is ‘true’ at first glance, the conditions of whiteness, as interpreted through social capital, do not make that clear to the upwardly mobile ‘hipster.’

Though the potential for ‘coolness’/cultural capital might not readily translate into economic success, it still permits this group (sometimes superficial, sometimes substantial) access and mobility, in ways that Aboriginal/black/brown/immigrant Australians do not always have a hand in, mired as we are by institutional and personal obstruction and marginalisation. And this is still systemic – a purposeful framework that one cannot simply opt out of if the going gets tough. Certain realities of economic status may be shared, but that division shouldn’t be glossed over where it intersects so palpably.

What Little Men does so well is detail a destructive force unfolding in a very specific way, quietly and strategically. Many conversations about gentrification that I have overheard since moving to Sydney are undeniably circular. They appear to take place to gratify the knowledge of their speakers, to make people feel conscious and aware, and to temporarily demonstrate a type of accountability that ends at words, rather than demarcating a clear understanding of what gentrification does, and how communities and individuals can resist its effects. As Chad says in his essay, ‘Real resistance to gentrification would entail the deeply unsexy work of fighting against development applications, fighting for improved social services for the marginalised, seeking better protections for renters and improved working conditions for the precariously and casually employed, amongst other things.’ But gentrification is still largely framed as ‘destroying culture’ (which is true), moreso than making certain areas difficult to afford for migrant, refugee, working class and welfare-dependent families – people who don’t have the time to intellectualise in the same way.

Gentrification turns cheap eateries, laundromats and local community stores into artisanal vegan cupcake shops. Nevermind that the Vietnamese grocer you used to visit with hyper-colour packaging and refrigerated aloe vera drinks incidentally probably sold soy-based snacks five times cheaper. Gentrification ploughs through family homes, turning them into sky-high apartment buildings with unimaginable rent prices. Or in the case of Sydney’s Westconnex, displaces people from their suburbs so that wealthy businesspeople can get to work quicker, or whatever the hell it’s supposed to be doing.

Ultimately it is the comfort of privilege that blindsides Brian in Little Men. His place within white mediocrity becomes obvious when he cannot fathom someone else earning something, even succeeding, as much as Leonor can in her position, despite being poor. Perhaps he feels that she has ‘cheated the system,’ whereas he has not achieved anything himself, despite his cultural capital, and he is enacting a kind of punitive response. This is where the nuances of race intersect keenly and cruelly across class boundaries. In his haste to take over what he believes to be his, Brian adopts a quasi-imperialist mentality, doggedly pursuing Leonor in a way that feels starkly narcissistic and institutional, even as he tries to act like the ‘good guy.’ In a piece for Tidal Mag, Zoltan Gluck notes that gentrification may be analysed as an economic project which displaces the poor and benefits the affluent, but also articulates itself as a racial project whose violence is vested on people of colour. These processes bear out Stuart Hall’s famous argument, that ‘race is … the modality in which class is lived.’

The product of Brian’s selfishness is the spiritual breakdown that his son and best friend face. Although Sachs distinctly stated that this is not a queer movie, the platonic dedication between Jake and Tony carries romantic sensibilities, especially as they are in that ambiguous stage between childhood and adulthood where affection can lack any lucidity. This is important, because a relationship based in vulnerability and love beyond social binaries is also one threatened by a different kind of gentrification and simplification. That time in teendom is crucial and sensitive, a period where understanding of relationships is fluid but often marvellously incoherent, so easily scrambled, mistaken and confused.

The secrecy of their alliance, the hidden languages they create in order to avoid their parents, and to skirt around the expectations levelled against them, the closeness and subsequent emotional outbursts when they are separated, and the 70s-esque semiotics of young gay New Yorkers, feel like palettes drawn upon to colour the lives of these pseudo-queer protagonists. Tony’s Newsies-esque personality and boldness act as a foil to Jake’s shyness and unwitting distance and his budding art school ambiguity. The legitimacy and dedication formed through this circumstantial friendship becomes more obvious through this comparative framing.

The difficulty of portraying gentrification is saved by Sachs’ portrait of love. As a saviour, as an escape rope, as a torch in a pitch-black room. It may be a device, but it is nonetheless one that humanises and elucidates in all of its freedom. In a market where suspicion, selfishness and individualism are encouraged, where strict and harsh economics disrupt and disconnect us from one another, it is the youths who resist, who attempt to end the never-ending cycle of violence.

Little Men offers a lot of space to ruminate. In recent times it is perhaps one of the most understated films I’ve seen, to the point of being frustrating – the sociopolitical tone of the movie is so ambiguous it is almost made redundant. But it succeeds by shifting focus away from the mechanics of gentrification, using the two young boys’ relationship as a disarming and moving image. At the film’s conclusion, we see the boys again – one of them distinctly more feminised, alongside his new liberal art peers with ambiguous gender presentations. Hair tied in a ponytail, a cropped denim jacket encasing him, he views his former friend across a hall. His expression offers so much and nothing at all, and despite the faint echoes of passerbys, the silence makes you feel like you can hear his heart start to beat a little bit faster.


Image: Three Boys and “A Train” / Wikimedia

Jonno Revanche

Jonno Revanche is a writer based in the cross.

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