If a story works, it speaks to a specific place as well as life outside of it. As filmmaker Ira Sachs says, "By being personal, it becomes universal."
Sachs' latest film, Little Men, is an intimate family drama set in New York but rooted in issues that people can relate to regardless of where they live. This is just one of the many reasons it's opening the upcoming Indy Film Fest.
The Logansport native stars as Brian Jardine, a struggling actor who finds himself working mostly in non-profit theater productions. After his father dies, Brian inherits his Brooklyn property, the bottom floor of which he leased to a quiet Chilean woman named Leonor (Paulina García) in an effort to help her run a dress shop out of the building.
While his wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) barely holds the roof over their heads, Brian pushes Leonor to pay more in rent. As these adults turn into enemies, their children become best friends. Leonor's son, Tony (Michael Barbieri), brings Brian and Kathy's son, Jake (Theo Taplitz), out of his shell, turning the introverted aspiring artist into a more exuberant young man.
While the kids' differences bring them closer together, their parents struggle to find common ground. As a result, Tony and Jake go on strike against them, refusing to speak until the adults can straighten out their problems and bridge the socioeconomic gap between them. Both sets of characters find that they have a lot of growing up to do.
"Everyone is always trying to figure out how to be an adult, whatever age they are," Sachs says. But as the film shows, children seem to deal with interpersonal conflicts in better ways.
"There's something about childhood that allows us to cross difference more easily," Sachs says. "Children aren't as aware of economic and racial distinctions. There are these merged communities in children's lives that seem to become more difficult to create as you get older and people define themselves more by class and race, even if they're not aware that they're doing so. And it's not a matter of children choosing to be more progressive. It's just something about the innocence of youth that allows better relationships to be made."
Sachs found the young actors supporting that idea every day on set, exuding a sense of compassion and wisdom far beyond their years. (They were 12 and 13 when the film went into production, and both were making their feature film debut with this project.)
"These two kids were particularly precocious and insightful and energetic," he says. "So, part of my job was to create an environment in which their most intimate energy was given free reign. The adult actors very quickly realized that the kids were their peers, and there was a real family atmosphere on set."
That support system pushed both of the young actors long after the film wrapped. They're growing into serious artists, living up to the descriptions of their characters as "little men."
"Yesterday, Theo sent me his third short film that he's made since completing our movie. So, for him, our production was like Filmmaking 101," Sachs says. "And Michael has had a very interesting year since our film went to Sundance. He's been cast in The Dark Tower, the Stephen King adaptation with Matthew McConaughey. And right now, he's on the set of the new Spider-Man reboot, and he's playing Spidey's best friend. So, their lives have transformed, and they're very proud of what we made together."
As for the adult actors, Sachs found them to be just as excited about this film as the young men, feeling the same spark that first ignited their passion for acting years ago.
"It seemed to remind them of the kinds of movies they got in the business to make — movies that resonate with their own lives and share something very deep and real and human," Sachs says.
Audiences at the Indy Film Fest will feel the same way — as if they are watching their own adolescence or adulthood unfold on screen. The film sets the bar high for the rest of the festival, quietly sneaking up and engaging our emotions with its small yet powerful story. Like many of the movies that typically play in this fest, it's an earnest film with its heart in the right place. It should sweep audiences off their feet here just like it did at Sundance.
Although Sachs won't be able to attend the festival, he has high hopes for the screening of the film and what Indy audiences will take from it, in their hearts and imaginations.
"I'm from Memphis, Tennessee, and I imagine Indianapolis is similar," Sachs says. "I've seen in cities like that what a film festival can create, not only for the audience but for filmmakers. And I hope this film is an inspiration in the sense that it shows how telling our own stories can be the most powerful thing we can do as filmmakers and as people."